Migraines are sometimes caused by a serious medical condition. People are advised to seek medical help if:
- They are experiencing migraines for the first time
- Migraine symptoms change significantly or abruptly
- Migraine pain is not well controlled
An experienced health professional can recommend treatments to help keep occasional migraines from becoming chronic. He or she can also evaluate and monitor the patient for health conditions associated with migraines, such as stroke and heart problems.
Health Care Providers Who Treat Migraines
Visiting a headache specialist or another medical professional experienced in treating migraines is recommended. Medical professionals who may focus on migraines include, but are not limited to:
- Family practice physicians
- Otolaryngologists—ear, nose, and throat specialists, or ENTs
- Pain management physicians
Most headache specialists are neurologists who have additional training in headache treatment.
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Getting a Diagnosis: What to Expect
Migraines cannot be diagnosed with a lab test or medical imaging, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT). Such tests may be ordered, however, to rule out non-migraine causes of the pain.
Once other causes have been ruled out, the health professional will rely on a physical exam and the patient’s description of symptoms. The patient may be asked about:
- Migraines' frequency and severity
- Actions that seem to relieve or aggravate the symptoms
Tracking this information can help the health care provider and patient work together to identify and avoid potential migraine triggers and find the best treatment. Medications may be prescribed to relieve symptoms after the migraine's onset and to reduce the number of migraines experienced.
The health care provider may also offer advice on timing of migraine medications, which can in some cases trigger chronic headaches.
Conditions with Similar Symptoms
Diagnosing a migraine can be challenging, since similar symptoms occur with other conditions, including but not limited to:
- Sinus conditions
- Other types of headaches
- Transient ischemic attack (TIA), also called a mini-stroke
- Brain tumors
In addition to conditions that may be mistaken for migraines, other conditions can be contributing factors in migraines. Two such conditions are the jaw pain known as temporomandibular joint dysfunction and sleep apnea, characterized by snoring at night and exhaustion during the day.
A health care provider experienced in treating migraine headaches is less likely to attribute migraine symptoms to a sinus problem—a common misdiagnosis that hinders effective treatment.