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Headache and Stroke: How to Know When It’s a Medical Emergency

smart woman with glasses experiencing headache and rubbing temples

Many people wonder if a headache is a sign of a stroke, especially since strokes are informally known as “brain attacks.” This unclear relationship between headache and stroke can create anxiety for many people. 

In this article, you’ll learn more about the link between headache and stroke. This will help you understand the symptoms of a stroke and when to call for help.

The Link Between Headache and Stroke

The most common symptoms of a stroke are summarized in the acronym F.A.S.T.

  • Face: half the face is drooping
  • Arm: the person cannot lift one of their arms
  • Speech: the person is slurring their words
  • Time: swift treatment is necessary to save a life!

Headaches are not part of this acronym, which was coined by the American Stroke Association. This symptom is not included because it’s a less common side effect.

About 18% of stroke patients experienced a headache during the onset of their stroke, according to a study of 2,506 stroke patients.

Eighteen percent is not low, so headache is not considered a rare side effect.

How to Know When a Headache Is Actually a Stroke

Many stroke survivors live with anxiety about having another stroke. This means that the onset of a headache can make stroke survivors worried that it’s a sign of another stroke.

If a headache comes suddenly, with or without other stroke-related symptoms, you should seek immediate medical attention.

This is especially important if you suffer from regular ocular migraines, which are severe headaches accompanied by visual disturbances like auras.

Ocular migraines are considered a stroke risk factor, almost 3x-ing your risk of a stroke. Therefore, if your headache is accompanied by visual disturbances, auras, vertigo, or stabbing pain, you should seek medical attention.

It’s impossible to know if a headache is a stroke without an MRI or CT scan.

Why Time Is Critical to Save a Life

If you think you are having a stroke, it’s important to head to the emergency room as soon as possible.

When a stroke occurs, the oxygen-deprived brain cells begin to die. As the supply of blood stays blocked, more brain damage happens.

Fortunately, when stroke patients receive timely treatment, doctors can preserve as much brain tissue as possible. As a result, post-stroke disabilities are minimized.

Don’t hesitate to seek medical attention if you think someone is having a stroke. You could save a life.

To illustrate the importance of seeking medical attention for headaches, here’s one stroke survivor’s story:

How Kayla’s Headache Was Eventually Linked to Her Stroke

While headaches are not a common side effect of stroke, it should still be considered a warning sign.

A young woman named Kayla experienced her stroke at the age of 21. Her first symptoms involved a “knife of a headache.” However, because doctors are not trained to associate headaches with stroke, she was misdiagnosed.

When Kayla went to the emergency room the next morning, she was diagnosed with a migraine and no tests were taken. Over the next 2 days, her symptoms only got worse.

At that point, her doctor ordered an MRI and the stroke was finally identified. Unfortunately, time lost is brain lost. Over those two days, sections of Kayla’s brain weren’t receiving enough oxygen-rich blood, and her risk of disability and even death was not managed.

It took Kayla several years to recover, but fortunately she has recovered almost completely, aside from experiencing seizures which she takes medication for.

We hope Kayla’s story, which you can find in Stroke Connection magazine, shows the importance of taking headaches seriously.

The Relationship between Headache and Stroke

About 18% of stroke patients experience a headache during the onset of the stroke. Therefore, headaches should be taken seriously and treated with emergency medical attention.

Ocular migraines are particularly known to be associated with a higher risk of stroke. Pay attention to visual disturbances if you are concerned that a headache is related to a stroke.

Unfortunately, strokes without the hallmark symptoms are often misdiagnosed. You can help save a life by spreading awareness and insisting on an MRI scan if you believe something is wrong.

Keep It Going: Download Our Stroke Recovery Ebook for Free

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See how Susan is recovering from post-stroke paralysis

“I had a stroke five years ago causing paralysis on my left side which remains today.

I recently began using FitMi.

At first it was difficult for me to be successful with a few of the exercises but the more I use it, the better my scores become.

I have recently had some movement in my left arm that I did not have before.

I don’t know if I can directly relate this to the use of the FitMi but I am not having occupational therapy so I conclude that it must be benefiting me.

The therapy modality motivates me to use it daily and challenges me to compete against my earlier scores.

I heartily recommend it!-Susan, stroke survivor

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