The cause of headaches can be difficult to determine. The doctor will question you about your headaches and do a physical exam.
Your doctor may perform imaging tests to help determine the cause of your headache, including:
- CT scan. CT scans use a computer to create cross-sectional images of your brain and head (including your sinuses) by combining images from an X-ray unit that rotates around your body.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). With MRIs, a magnetic field and radio waves are used to create cross-sectional images of the structures within your brain.
Most people who assume they have sinusitis actually have migraines or tension-type headaches.
Migraines and chronic or recurrent headaches may be treated with prescription medication that is either taken every day to reduce or prevent headaches or taken at the onset of a headache to prevent it from getting worse.
To treat these types of headaches, your doctor may recommend:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers. Migraines and other types of headaches may be treated with over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), naproxen sodium (Aleve) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB).
Triptans. Many people with migraine attacks use triptans to relieve pain. Triptans work by promoting constriction of blood vessels and blocking pain pathways in the brain.
Medications include sumatriptan (Imitrex, Tosymra, others), rizatriptan (Maxalt), almotriptan, naratriptan (Amerge), zolmitriptan (Zomig), frovatriptan (Frova) and eletriptan (Relpax). Triptans are available as tablets, nasal sprays and injections.
A single-tablet combination of sumatriptan and naproxen sodium (Treximet) has proved to be more effective in relieving migraine symptoms than either medication on its own.
Ergots. Ergotamine and caffeine combination drugs (Migergot, Cafergot) are less effective than triptans. Ergots seem most effective in those whose pain lasts for more than 72 hours.
Ergotamine may cause worsened nausea and vomiting related to your migraines and other side effects, and it may also lead to medication-overuse headaches.
Dihydroergotamine (D.H.E. 45, Migranal) is an ergot derivative that is more effective and has fewer side effects than ergotamine. It's available as a nasal spray and in injection form. This medication may cause fewer side effects than ergotamine and is less likely to lead to medication-overuse headaches.
- Anti-nausea medications. Because migraines are often accompanied by nausea, with or without vomiting, medication for nausea is appropriate and is usually combined with other medications. Frequently prescribed medications are chlorpromazine, metoclopramide (Reglan) or prochlorperazine (Compazine).
- Glucocorticoids (dexamethasone). A glucocorticoid may be used in conjunction with other medications to improve pain relief. Because of the risk of steroid toxicity, glucocorticoids shouldn't be used frequently.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. You may be referred to a neurologist who specializes in headaches and migraines.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and to know what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
- Be aware of pre-appointment restrictions. When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restricting your diet.
- Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- Write down key personal information, including major stresses or recent life changes.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins and supplements you're taking.
- Take a family member or friend along, if possible. Someone who accompanies you can help you remember what your doctor tells you.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
Preparing questions will help you make the most of your time with your doctor. For sinus headaches, some basic questions to ask include:
- What is likely causing my symptoms or condition?
- Are there other possible causes for my symptoms or condition?
- What tests do I need?
- Is my condition likely temporary or chronic?
- What is the best course of action?
- What are the alternatives to the primary approach you're suggesting?
- I have these other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
- Are there any restrictions I need to follow?
- Should I see a specialist?
- Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing?
- Are there brochures or other printed materials I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions you may have.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you questions, such as:
- When did you first experience your headache, and what was it like?
- Has your headache been continuous or occasional?
- Has anyone in your immediate family had migraines?
- What seems to improve your headaches?
- What appears to worsen your headaches?
April 21, 2020
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- Headache: Hope through research. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Hope-Through-Research/Headache-Hope-Through-Research#3138_10. March 13, 2018.
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