Last updated on 06-07-2014
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Your Lifesaving Guide to Bad Headaches

Is it a headache? Or something worse? Here's what you need to know the next time you get a "killer" headache.

ANEURYSM A weak spot on a blood vessel in your brain that balloons out and fills with blood. It may leak or burst, causing severe brain damage or even death. One in 50 people is at risk. Sufferers usually have a sudden onset of severe headaches, double vision, neck stiffness, nausea, vomiting, pain above and behind the eyes, and/or a change in mental functioning or awareness. Most aneurysms are due to an artery-wall abnormality that you're born with, or are prompted by trauma or injury to the head, vascular disease, or high blood pressure. The problem is thought to run in families.
STROKE Most strokes occur when a blood clot blocks an artery or blood vessel, interrupting blood flow to an area of the brain over a period of minutes or hours, causing brain cells to die. Often there is a sudden loss of speech, numbness or weakness of the face or on one side of the body, vision problems, and dizziness. Headaches are a possible, although less common, symptom. Strokes, the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States, usually happen to older people because the disorder is associated with hardening of the arteries, which occurs more as you age. But recent research suggests that the risks are climbing fast for middle-aged women, possibly because of weight gain.
BRAIN TUMOR Abnormal cells grow into a mass that interferes with brain activity. About 22,000 Americans are diagnosed with cancerous brain tumors every year. Common symptoms are frequent headaches, especially ones that wake you up at night or in the morning, blurry vision, nausea and/or vomiting, personality or cognitive changes, and seizures. The causes are unknown.
HEAD INJURY A blow or bump anywhere on the head. As many as 10% of these injuries are fatal, and almost 550,000 people are hospitalized annually. The injury often leads to fluid (water or blood) pooling near or in the brain, which can create a buildup of dangerous pressure. If you're conscious, you may feel OK at first or feel woozy and lethargic, have trouble with short-term memory, be unaware of your surroundings, or find communicating difficult. You may have a mild to severe headache. Car accidents, falls, and sports-related injuries (like what happened to Natasha Richardson) are among the most common causes.


Could You Have a 'Mini-Stroke' And Not Know It?


Also known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA), a mini-stroke can occur before a major one leads to permanent damage.

Watch out for these warning signs.

More often than not, brain injuries lead to depression

More than half of all people who suffer a traumatic brain injury will become depressed in the year after the injury, a rate eight times higher than in the general population. Read the CNN article.

Mild Brain Injury Symptoms Can Be Delayed

People with mild traumatic brain injury often look fine. That's why it's easy to miss the subtle clues of a TBI. Nevertheless, there could be real injury to the brain.

Be aware that TBI symptoms may include:

  • Personality changes — depression, anxiety, anger, irritability.
  • Problems thinking — memory, concentration, learning, speaking, understanding.
  • A significant drop in performance at school or work, during sports, or in social situations.
  • Changes in sleep patterns or appetite.
  • Blurred vision, dizziness, and nausea.
  • Persistent, unexplained headaches.
  • Feeling tired all the time.

Do not wait to seek treatment. Your physician can help you evaluate these symptoms and pinpoint the cause of the problem.

What Can You Do?

  • Contact your physician and discuss the need for a referral to a brain injury specialist. These professionals include: neurologists, rehabilitation nurses, clinical neuropsychologists, and others.
  • Only take the drugs that have been prescribed by a doctor. For instance, something as simple as an aspirin may be harmful because it can increase bleeding.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Don't drink alcohol.
  • Learn about brain injury, then educate family, teachers, and coworkers so they do not set unreasonable expectations for the injured person.

Listen to an educational and entertaining one-hour radio show with Ann Boriskie, Director of the Brain Injury Peer Visitor Association®, and Stuart Hanzman on the real and practical day-to-day issues a brain-injured person and his/her family face. Explanations and strategies are given for minimizing and dealing with a variety of problems related to brain injury.

Watch this inspirational interview of Lee Haney (Mr. Olympia) and Ann at Allan Vigil Ford in Atlanta. Ann talks about her car accident and how it changed her life.

Watch this incredible video of the recovery and triumph of Wes Varda, a stroke survivor.

People of All Ages

"I just don't feel like myself."

The type of brain injury called a concussion has many symptoms. These symptoms are usually temporary, but may last for days, weeks, or even longer. Generally, if you feel that "something isn't quite right," or if you're "feeling foggy," you should talk with your doctor.

Here are some of the symptoms of a concussion:

  • Low-grade headaches that won't go away
  • Having more trouble than usual:
    • Remembering things
    • Paying attention or concentrating
    • Organizing daily tasks
    • Making decisions and solving problems
  • Slowness in thinking, acting, speaking, or reading
  • Getting lost or easily confused
  • Neck pain
  • Feeling tired all the time; lack of energy
  • Change in sleeping pattern:
    • Sleeping for much longer periods of time than before
    • Trouble sleeping or insomnia
  • Loss of balance; feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • Increased sensitivity to:
    • Sounds
    • Lights
    • Distractions
  • Blurred vision or eyes that tire easily
  • Loss of sense of taste or smell
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Change in sex drive
  • Mood changes:
    • Feeling sad, anxious, or listless
    • Becoming easily irritated or angry for little or no reason
    • Lack of motivation
  • Feeling sad, anxious, or listless
  • Becoming easily irritated or angry for little or no reason
  • Lack of motivation

Young Children

Although children can have the same symptoms of brain injury as adults, it is harder for young children to let others know how they are feeling. Call your child's doctor if your child seems to be getting worse or you notice any of the following:

  • Listless, tiring easily
  • Irritability, crankiness
  • Change in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Change in the way he/she plays
  • Change in the way he/she performs or acts at school
  • Lack of interest in favorite toys
  • Loss of new skills, such as toilet training
  • Loss of balance, unsteady walking

Older Adults

Older adults with a brain injury may have a higher risk of serious complications such as a blood clot on the brain. Headaches that get worse or an increase in confusion are signs of this complication. If these signs occur, see a doctor right away.

Sources: Brain and Spinal Injury Trust Fund Commission; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Facts About Concussion and Brain Injury, Where to Get Help