Most migraine headaches, as painful and intrusive as they can be, are not life threatening and do not justify a trip to the emergency unit. However, there are occasions when migraines with aura or other types of migraines signal an underlying medical emergency such as stroke, meningitis, brain aneurysm or heart defect.
What are the 4 kinds of headaches which merit immediate emergency response?
There are a number of life threatening situations which are preceded by headaches, in addition to the other symptoms described. Here are the 4 most dangerous and life threatening illnesses which are signaled by headaches and require immediate emergency attention:
A stroke occurs when there is a blockage in the blood vessels which restricts blood flow to the brain; sometimes the blockage causes a burst blood vessel in the brain. A stroke causes moderate to severe brain damage, depending on the severity of the symptoms and the swiftness in response. Symptoms of stroke include sudden headache, tingling or numbness in either side of face, arm and leg, difficulty speaking and understanding when others are speaking to you, vision problems and difficulty keeping balance.
Meningitis is an infection in the brain and spinal chord; meningitis can infect teens and young adults, in addition to the elderly, and is caused by either a virus or bacterial infection. Meningitis is infectious, so proper hygiene is imperative to prevent the spread of this life threatening disease. Symptoms of meningitis are headache, stiff neck, fever, vomiting, seizures and extreme drowsiness. A spinal tap must be administered in order to properly diagnose meningitis.
- Brain aneurysm
A brain aneurysm is caused by a weak area in the arterial walls which supply blood to the brain; a rupture results in a subarachnoid hemorrhage, which could result in brain damage, depending on the severity of the rupture. Brain aneurysm may be caused by age, heredity, hypertension or hardening of the arteries due to improper diet or smoking. Symptoms of brain aneurysm include sudden “thunderclap” headaches, blurred vision, speech difficulties, neck stiffness and pain, nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity and seizures.
- Heart defect
There has been some research connecting migraines with aura among children and birth defects in the heart; a gap between the two upper chambers of the heart, called a patent foramen ovale (PFO), makes it difficult for the heart to prevent blood clots from getting to the brain, and could lead to a stroke. Symptoms of migraine with aura include intense headache accompanied by blind spots, feebleness, tingling, warbled speech and hallucinations.
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