Neuroimaging of headache

Michael J Marmura MD (Dr. Marmura of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital received research support from Teva and honorariums for consulting services from Alder, Amgen, Promius, Supernus, and Teva.)
Stephen D Silberstein MD, editor. (Dr. Silberstein, Director of the Jefferson Headache Center at Thomas Jefferson University, receives honorariums from Allergan, Avanir Pharmaceuticals, Curelator, Depomed, Dr. Reddy's Laboratories, eNeura,  INSYS Therapeutics, Lilly USA, Supernus Pharmacerticals,  Thernica and Trigemina for consulting. He is also the  principal investigator for a clinical trials conducted by Alder Biopharmaceuticals, Amgen, electroCore Medical, Lily USA and Teva.)
Originally released December 11, 2000; last updated December 4, 2017; expires December 4, 2020

Overview

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, now demonstrate the role of the hypothalamus, brainstem structure, and network abnormalities. This review also highlights serious secondary causes of headache such as vascular disorders and tumors as a trigger for headache and occasionally cluster headache.

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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