Headaches are common, but they’re not all created equal. Some feel like a dull ache—annoying but manageable. Some cause overwhelming pain that can prevent you from functioning. Others fall somewhere in between.
When should a headache send you to urgent care or to the emergency room? Ronak V. Shah, MD, associate medical director of Mass General Brigham Urgent Care, discusses common types of headaches and offers guidance about when and where to seek care.
Most common headaches evaluated at urgent care fall into one of three categories:
Rarely, a headache may be a sign of a medical emergency, such as a stroke or brain aneurysm. Go to the emergency room if your headache is associated with any of these symptoms:
What should you do when you have a headache that’s not an emergency?
“There are a few things you can try at home,” Dr. Shah says. He recommends taking an over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, following the instructions on the label. And make sure you’re well hydrated, since dehydration can make headaches worse.
“It’s always a good idea to check in with your PCP first—or with your neurologist or headache specialist, if you are already being treated for headaches,” Dr. Shah says. Your doctor's office can recommend next steps and assist with any urgent issues.
If you don’t have a PCP or no appointments are available, you can go to urgent care. Another helpful option is Mass General Brigham Virtual Urgent Care. It’s open to all patients ages 3 and up, even if they haven’t seen a Mass General Brigham provider before. Both new and current patients can schedule a virtual urgent care visit for that day or the next day on Mass General Brigham Patient Gateway.
“Virtual urgent care can be a great option if you aren’t sure what your next step should be,” Dr. Shah says. “It’s a way to talk to a trained medical professional to help you decide whether you can try home remedies or if you need to be seen in urgent care or the emergency room.”
To diagnose problems associated with headaches, in-person urgent care providers can perform tests including:
In-person urgent care providers can give medications, including a “migraine cocktail”—a combination of shots to treat migraine pain. These vary, but generally include a high-dose non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), and an anti-nausea medication. Both virtual and in-person urgent care providers may also prescribe medications, especially if you already have a diagnosis of chronic headaches and just need help with pain control.
“If you don’t have any of the “red flag” symptoms that indicate an emergency, urgent care is a great option for managing headaches,” Dr. Shah says.