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Thunderclap Headaches: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Solution

The term thunderclap headache brings up certain frightening images of something that happens suddenly and intensely, which is exactly what this type of headache is. It seems to occur out of nowhere and reaches its peak within 60 seconds of its onset. Patients who have experienced this type of headache have reported feeling the worst pain they have ever felt. When quantified on a scale of 1 to 10, the pain experienced with this type of headache ranks at a 10. The intensity of the pain can bring on other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and numbness among others. The headache itself can be quite frightening, but what people should be more wary about is what causes it. Most of the times, tests done to identify the cause will reveal no underlying illness; however, this type of headache is usually a warning sign of a ruptured aneurysm or one that is about to rupture. Brain infections like meningitis and encephalitis, as well as blood clots, brain tumors and cerebrospinal fluid leakage can also cause this type of severe and sudden headache. Another possible cause is a sudden elevation of blood pressure or rupturing of blood vessels in the brain during exercise or other strenuous activities.

What are the Symptoms of a Thunderclap Headache?

A thunderclap headache is rare and easy to detect. Unlike other types of headaches which build up gradually, this type of headache lives up to the name it was given. It hits a person suddenly and without warning much like how a bolt of lightning would strike. The pain will reach its highest intensity within a minute from its onset and can last for as short as an hour, and in worse cases, as long as ten days. The pain is felt on both sides of the head and may sometimes creep down to the neck area. Nausea and vomiting are also common symptoms that occur alongside the headache due to its intensity. Due to the grave nature of the underlying conditions that may cause the headaches, it is important to seek immediate medical attention when one experiences a thunderclap headache. Ignoring this headache and its symptoms is not a good idea because the next time it occurs, it may be too late.

How are These Headaches Diagnosed?

Doctors would often ask patients about the onset of the headache and how quickly the headache progressed. It is important to know this information before going to see a doctor or headache specialist in order to get an accurate diagnosis. To determine the cause of the headache, several tests may have to be done. The most common diagnostic tool for this type of headache is the CT scan. MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging), MRAs (magnetic resonance angiography) and spinal taps are also useful for tracking down the condition that causes this extreme pain.

Thunderclap Headache Treatment

Pain medication is useless with this type of headache as it is only a symptom of something more severe. Proper treatment for this type of headache would depend on what condition is causing it. Because there are a lot of different conditions that can cause this type of severe headache, there is no single treatment plan that can help ease the pain and symptoms. Treating the cause of the pain may involve medication, surgery and therapeutic lumbar puncture.

If you are experiencing a sudden onset of severe pain much like that of a thunderclap headache, it’s best to consult a headache specialist immediately for proper diagnosis and treatment.

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A procedure in which the doctor inserts a small needle into the spinal cavity in the lower back to withdraw some spinal fluid for testing. Also known as a "spinal tap."