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Headaches and Strokes

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Updated June 11, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Strokes (or "brain attacks") occur when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, either through a blockage in the blood vessels (ischemic stroke) or bleeding (hemorrhagic stroke). Both are medical emergencies, and both can be associated with a headache.

Distinguishing Strokes from “Normal” Headaches

It depends upon which type of stroke a patient is experiencing, but research shows that between 15 to 50% of stroke victims report some sort of headache. If you experience any of the following symptoms with your headache, you may be having a stroke:

  • You feel you are having “the worst headache of your life”
  • A “thunderclap headache” (an abrupt, severe headache without warning)
  • Weakness of the face, arm, and/or leg on one side of body
  • Numbness in the face, arm, and/or leg one side of body
  • Inability to understand spoken language
  • Inability to speak
  • Inability to write
  • Vertigo and/or gait imbalance
  • Double vision

What Should You Do?

If you believe you are having a stroke you should call 911. Early treatment is the key to preventing any long-term effects from a stroke. If your headache symptoms change from your “usual” symptoms, you may also want to call your physician. He or she can then decide if you need to be evaluated. Also, review these headache warning signs and let your primary care provider or headache specialist know if you experience any of them.

Sources:

”Headache: Hope Through Research.” From the National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke website. Accessed 26 October 2009. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/headache/detail_headache.htm

”Types of Stroke.” From the American Stroke Association website. Accessed 26 October 2009. http://www.strokeassociation.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=1014

Vestergaard K, et al. “Headache in Stroke.” Stroke, Vol 24, 1621-1624.

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