Neuroimaging of headache

Michael J Marmura MD (Dr. Marmura of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital has received research support from Teva, and  honorariums for consulting services from Supernus and Teva.)
Originally released December 11, 2000; last updated October 23, 2016; expires October 23, 2019


Although usually benign, headache can herald serious intracranial disease. Neuroimaging must be considered whenever secondary causes of headache are suspected. The authors discuss both the contribution that neuroimaging has made to our understanding of headache pathophysiology and the indications for neuroimaging in clinical practice. Common abnormalities on exam and their relationship to headache are explored, as well as the yield of neuroimaging in various clinical situations. Advances in imaging, such as functional MRI to study migraine pathophysiology, volumetric MRI to predict outcomes following microvascular decompression, and uncommon secondary headache disorders such as reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndromes, are highlighted.

Key points


• Not all cases of headache require neuroimaging.


• When deciding whether or not to image a patient with headache, think about the “red flags.”


• Neuroimaging should be strongly considered in unusual primary headaches, such as the trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias, cough, or exertional headaches, etc.

Historical note and terminology

Headache diagnosis remains clinical, even in today's technology-driven practice of medicine (Koehler 2001). The International Headache Society Classification defines headaches as primary, based on their clinical features or genetic markers, or secondary due to another proven cause (Headache Classification Subcommittee of the International Headache Society 2013). For primary headache disorders such as migraine, diagnosis does not rely on neuroimaging.

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