From the Desk of Sagar Galwankar, MBBS, DNB, FACEE, MPH, Diplomat. ABEM, FRCP
- Headache is one of the common symptoms when patients come to the ED.
- Headache can be a Presenting Complaint when the patient arrives. “I got a Headache” and sometimes when patients are being evaluated at bedside for some other symptoms they can add the complaint “..and I also have an Headache”
- History takes paramount importance when a patient complains of Headache as a Primary Symptoms or a Co-Symptom as a part of a Series of Complaints.
- Always evaluate Headache keeping a 360 Degree approach.
- Always address Headache. via your Thought process, History taking and Clinical Exam.
Vital Signs take a Lot of Importance and ask for them as you immediately prescribe pain medications to treat the PAIN.
Temperature, Pulse, Blood Pressure, Respiration, Pulse Ox, and Bedside Glucose are key stat Bedside Parameters which guide you to a story. Order an EKG Stat and read it.
Remember: Gender does matter ! Pregnant Females & Females who do not know they are pregnant can come to the ED. Being Pregnant Changes the way you will evaluate these patients. Having abdominal pain, Hyperemesis gravidarum vaginal bleed can come with an headache and evaluating for abdominal emergencies and Ruling out Ectopic Pregnancy at the same time deciding about CT Head and Headache work up is a complex issue. They can also have HELP Syndrome or Eclampsia also can start with Headache.
- Age is crucial before Young Female with Headache and Cold and Cough is different from a 50 Year old with Headache and Blurry Vision.
- History taking should include: When did it start, how severe is it from a scale of 1-10, any other symptoms of Dizziness, Focal weakness, Gen weakness, Vision changes, neck pain, Syncope Seizures, Nausea, Vomiting Diarrhea, Chest Pain, SOB, Neck Pain/Stiffness, Dizziness, Vertigo have to be ruled in or ruled out.
- Past History of DM HTN CAD CVA Cancer HIV Hep B Hep C are important. Is patient on anticoagulants also is key history point.
Some Cluster approaches are:
- Fever, Tachycardia, Headache, Neck Pain: Here Headache can be as simple as a Viral Fever or as severe as early meningitis or even a URI if Cold Cough Sinus Tenderness are present.
- Headache could be a early Bleed (Subarachanoid) or even a CVA when patients have vasculitis, Bleeding disorders, Hypertension , DM.
- Headache can be due to Glaucoma or due to Otitis Media or even early Temporal arteritis.
- Headache can be segmental along a nerve for a early developing Zoster.
- Syncope, Fall, Seizure, Loss of Sensorium, Altered Mental Status with Headache all can be indicating a worse diagnosis than how the Headache presented.
- Post Ictal Phase can present as Headache.
- Another confounder: MI/ACS can also present as an Headache so can arrhythmia or PE. So EKG Trop are Important.
There have been cases who have presented as an Headache and when you do labs there has been Low Hemoglobin and patient has a GI Bleed and the Immediate anemia has caused an headache.
Be very particular and alert when Patients says “Headache is what brought me to the ED”. On the other hand there is tons of Literature of approach to Migraine in ED.
Its very important that you read the literature as there are various combinations of medications used to break the migraine. When a patient says “I have a Migraine attack” you still have to approach it as an HEADACHE.
Sometimes patients present with Neck Pain and Stiffness and we disregard it as “Slept on wrong side or Neck sprain”. Evaluating for Cord Compression and keeping Dissection and SAH as a differential is equally important as much as ACS/MI or even a Retro pharyngeal abscess in a URI patient.
What it comes down to is:
- Vitals, Past History, Med List, Clinical Co-Symptoms, History of Complaint, Detail Clinical Exam to include total undressing of patient Neuro Vascular HFN HEENT Exam and Lab Results is crucial.
- Overdose and Drug abuse are important historical points which can indicate Cocaine abuse or even overdose unintentionally on paracetamol ibuprofen trying to self medicate with Over Counter Medications.
- CBC, LFT RFT Trop EKG UA Tox Screen and CT / MRI ESR are a part of the work up in ED.
- In a patients with Hypoglycemia or Hyperglycemia Ketoacidosis versus Toxicity v/s sepsis or infection has to be kept at back of mind.
- In HTN emergency headache can be because of raised BP and Raised BP can cause headache. Treating both is important but also is important ruling out cardiac pathologies a CT Head and look for Posterior Reversible Encephalopathy Syndrome.
- I have also read reports where patients were on anticoagulants and had neck pain and when MRI was done it has Hemomyelia into the spinal cord.
- There have been cases alcoholism where patients wake up with headache in ED but they dont know that Methanol or Toxic alcohols were also drunk and they have an Headache.
- Being very aggressive to rule out meningitis and SAH and using Spinal Taps with Clinical Co relation is important in the ED.
- Patients often return post spinal tap with headache and at this time Blood Patch becomes a choice after you have ruled out any other cause or pathology.
- Patients also have headache after Nitro given for Chest Pain.
- Fever can exacerbate Headache and Hunger can do that too.
- A TIA can be presenting as Headache being one of the Co-Symptoms.
- Always Document in detail the history the clinical exam and the plan for ordering tests and meds and chart your thought process and notes as you reevaluate the patient.
- That helps and maintains the continuum of care at the same time maintaining standards of care.
- Discharge is a crucial part. Here too Educating the patient and giving return instructions is key.
Do not Disregard or Less regard HEADACHE. Its a Part of the PAIN PATHOLOGIES which can cause PAIN if ignored.
Patients have Pain , treat it first but work it up and decipher the cause then treat the cause…. FOR THE PATIENTS !
MBBS, DNB, FACEE (INDIA), MPH, Dip. ABEM (USA), FRCP (UK)
Chief Academic Officer of the INDO-US Emergency and Trauma Collaborative
Department of Emergency Medicine
University of Florida, Jacksonville
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