What Is a Headache Specialist and Do You Need One?

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Everyone gets a headache from time to time. Most headaches go away on their own or with the help of over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. However, some people get headaches often and experience a lot of pain, and for them, OTC pain relievers and even prescription medicines may not offer relief from head pain. If you are one of these people, you may benefit from seeing a headache specialist.

A headache specialist is a doctor who has expertise in diagnosing and treating headache disorders. And if you have headaches that are severe, debilitating, and resistant to treatment, seeing a neurologist or other headache specialist may be helpful in getting you some relief.

Here is what you need to know about headaches, determining when it is time to see a specialist, what a headache specialist is, and the types of healthcare providers that specialize in headache disorders.

Headaches Defined

A headache is symptom of pain in the head, face, and/or neck. The most common type of headache is an underlying primary headache disorder, meaning there are no other conditions contributing to the headache. The most common are migraine, tension headache, and cluster headache.

Migraine: A migraine is a recurrent headache disorder that ranges from moderate to severe in intensity. These headaches most commonly affect one half of the head, are often described as throbbing, and can last from a few hours to days at a time.

Additional symptoms of migraine can include nausea and vomiting, as well as sensitivity to light, sound, and smells. Activity worsens migraines, and at least one-third of people with migraines experience some type of aura—a short period of visual disturbance indicating the start of a migraine. Other types of auras include numbness or weakness on one side of the body.

Tension: Tension headaches—sometimes called stress headaches—radiate in the lower back part of the head, neck, and other muscle groups on both sides of the head. Many people describe the experience as feeling like they have a "band around their head." Eye pain is also common with tension headaches. Up to 80% of the adult population in the United States experiences tension headaches.

Cluster: Cluster headaches are severely painful headaches. These headaches occur in clusters, meaning a person will experience cycles of headache attacks and headache-free periods. Each cluster headache lasts between 30 and 90 minutes at a time and can occur multiple times in a day. These cluster periods can last from two weeks to three months or longer. It is also possible for these headaches to go into remission, meaning they disappear for a long period—for either months or years. These headaches can also wake you up at night.

In general, headaches are a signal from your body that the balance, or homeostasis, of your body is off. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of sleep
  • Stress
  • Loud noises
  • Effects of medications or recreational drugs
  • Viral infections, including the common cold
  • Head injury
  • Dental problems
  • Sinus issues

Frequent headaches affect a person’s daily life, both personally and professionally. Headaches can also be a common symptom of anxiety and depression. And having chronic headaches can add to your anxiety, depression, or both.

Medical treatment of recurrent headaches depends on their underlying cause. This may involve pain medications, but a combination of avoiding triggers and taking preventive medication is the most common and best form of treatment.

Who Should See a Headache Specialist?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to 4% of the world’s population experiences 15 or more headache days a month. If you are one of these people, you might consider seeing a specialist. This is especially true if your headaches interfere with your home life, your work, or going to school.

Additional reasons to see a headache specialist are if:

  • You take over-the-counter pain relievers often.
  • You notice your headaches are getting worse.
  • You are worried about taking too much medication.
  • You have gone to the hospital emergency room for severe headaches.
  • You experience neurological symptoms with headaches, including sensitivity to lights and sounds, vision changes, or weakness and numbness.
  • You experience headaches over the age of 50.
  • You experience headaches that wake you up from sleep, or are present when first waking up.
  • You experience headaches with fever or weight loss.

A headache specialist can check your symptoms, determine possible causes of headaches, and set up a detailed plan to help you manage triggers, treat pain, and improve your quality of life. And yes, your primary care physician is helpful, but a specialist has a much deeper understanding of headaches and may have access to better methods of diagnosis and newer, front-line treatments.

Types of Headache Specialists

A headache specialist is a physician who has taken an active interest in treating headaches and who attends meetings and continuing education to understand the scientific processes of headaches. Many headache specialists are certified by the United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties, but not every headache specialist has this certification or needs it.

Doctors who focus on treating headaches include neurologists, pain management doctors, and other specialists. Many headache specialists work in clinics dedicated to treating people with headache disorders.

A doctor who specialists in headaches can treat a number of conditions, including migraines, cluster headaches, sinus headaches, tension headaches, and facial pain. They may also treat primary headaches—where head pain is the main problem—and secondary headaches, where headaches are a symptom of another condition.

Neurologist

A neurologist specializes in neurology, a branch of science concerned with the study and treatment of nervous system disorders. Neurologists are trained in diagnosing and treating disorders of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves and muscles throughout the body. Neurologists can examine and treat nerves in the neck and head and also diagnose problems related to memory, balance, thinking, and speech.

Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) Doctors

ENTs are experts in treating anything from sinus problems to ear issues, and even headaches. Headache is a primary symptom of many diseases of the ear, nose, and throat. ENTs are trained to identify the cause of headaches and create treatment plans geared toward managing the headache problem.

Allergists

Sinus headaches and migraines are both linked to allergies. Headaches characterized by head pain and pressure, congestion, and watery eyes are common with colds, allergies, and major respiratory illnesses. However, while sinus infections can cause headaches, most of the time headaches that present with pain under the eyes or in the sinus regions along with congestion or watery eyes actually are migraines. Hay fever—also called allergic rhinitis—can cause headache and is linked to sinus disease.

Food allergies can be a trigger for headaches, and some foods are known for triggering migraine headaches. Allergic reactions may trigger headaches when the body produces histamines, which is the body’s response to the allergy. Histamines decrease blood pressure, which can lead to headache.

If you experience allergy-induced headaches, an allergist will likely refer you to another physician to help with treatment. When allergies are the root cause of headaches, the specific allergy also needs to be treated.

Neuromuscular Dentists

Sometimes the source of a person’s headache might be their temporomandibular joint (TMJ). The TMJ is the joint connecting the jaw to the skull. This joint allows for talking, laughing, and chewing, as it helps the jaw to move up and down and side to side. Any problem with this joint can cause a variety of symptoms, including head and ear pain. Disorders of the TMJ are called temporomandibular disorders (TMD).

A neuromuscular dentist focuses on correcting misalignment problems in the TMJ. If you see a doctor for headaches related to the TMJ, they will examine tissues, muscles, teeth, joints, and nerves of the TMJ. A neuromuscular dentist can determine underlying causes of your headaches and determine whether the TMJ is involved, or if there is another problem.

Pain Management Doctors

Pain management doctors include different pain specialists, including anesthesiologists, physiatrists, and orthopedists. A pain management specialist can help with treating the pain associated with headaches.

Ophthalmologist

An ophthalmologist is a medical and surgical specialist who specializes in the treatment of eye diseases. Many people with headache disorders experience symptoms that affect eyesight, including vision changes and loss, and sensitivity to light.

An ophthalmologist can help determine whatever your headache symptoms are caused by an eye disorder. The ophthalmologist can treat an eye disorder causing headaches or refer you to another specialist if headaches are the result of another condition.

Pediatric Headache Specialists

Children and teens can also experience headaches—usually tension headaches and migraines. According to the American Headache Foundation, up to 20% of children and teens are prone to headaches. Up to 15% have tension headaches and another 5% experience migraine headaches.

Living with recurrent headaches in adolescence can cause significant distress and affect a child's quality of life. A pediatric headache specialist can help a child and their parents manage headache triggers and create a treatment plan to help the child have a normal and happy life.

If you think you may benefit from seeing a headache specialist, talk to your primary care doctor. The National Headache Foundation offers a search tool to help you find a doctor specializing in headache medicine. Or you can visit a local headache center.

A Word From Verywell

In rare cases, a headache may indicate a stroke. A headache in someone who does not usually get them is a worrisome sign. A stroke requires immediate medical attention. In addition to a severe headache, a stroke can cause slurred speech, drooping on one side of the face, leg or arm weakness, fever, neck stiffness. confusion, seizure, trouble speaking, an aura, or loss of consciousness. Most people describe headaches associated with stroke as the worst headaches ever experienced.

Knowing the signs of a stroke can help you to get help quickly and improves your chance of a full recovery. Early treatment also increases your potential for survival and decreases your risk for more serious complications. Call your local emergency services and get to an emergency room if you think you—or someone else—are having a stroke. Don't delay treatment, as every second when responding to a stroke counts.

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12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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