Last updated on October 20th, 2020 at 06:41 am
WHEN TO SEE A HEADACHE SPECIALIST AND HOW TO PREPARE TO GET THE MOST FROM THE APPOINTMENT.
I see patients in our headache center from all over the United States and from many other countries. Many patients travel hundreds of miles by car or airplane for these visits, due to the shortage of available headache specialists (about 570 in the US). Many patients are lucky enough to be relatively close to a headache specialist. Whichever scenario you fall into, you want to get the most out of your appointment with a headache specialist in order to get on a better path to less headache or facial pain burden.
When to see a headache specialist
So first of all, when should you see a headache specialist? First off, any type of headache, head pain, or facial pain, is reason enough to see a headache specialist. Basically, headache specialists specialize in any type of pain or discomfort involving anywhere in the head or face. They also commonly see patients that may have other neurological symptoms which may not necessarily be associated with headaches, but their doctor wants to rule out a migraine “equivalent” disorder. Some patients can have neurologic symptoms without headache (visual, sensory, speech, vertigo, weakness, nausea/vomiting, abdominal pain), which may actually reflect a painless migraine disorder, such as migraine aura without headache. I have compiled a list below of a few of my thoughts of when your headache or facial pain treatment journey signals that it is time to see a headache specialist.
Reasons to see a headache specialist:
-You have a headache, head pain, or facial pain.
-Your doctor tells you, “your headache is all in your head”.
-Your doctor tells you, “there’s nothing else I can do for you”.
-Your doctor says, “I don’t treat much headache, but…”.
-You continue to have frequent headaches despite trying several preventive medications.
-You just don’t feel like you are making any progress despite a couple office visits with your doctor or their NP or PA (or you never even get to see the doctor).
-You don’t feel like your doctor is listening to you or taking your symptoms seriously.
-The doctor spends only a few minutes in the visit, so you feel rushed and unable to discuss all of your concerns.
-Your doctor is googling your symptoms in the office.
-Your doctor recommends that you take opiates/opioids for migraine treatment.
-Your doctor says it is ok to use NSAIDs, OTCs or triptans more than 10 days per month or butalbital/fioricet/fiorinal more than 5 days per month on average for migraine treatment.
-Your doctor says your headache is “because you are depressed”.
-Your doctor does not give you a more specific classification or name for your diagnosis.
What information should you gather before the visit?
Unfortunately, we all know how strapped for time most physicians are during office visits due to a variety of factors such as low insurance reimbursement and the need to increase patient volume to compensate for this and break even. So to get the most out of your office visit, making it efficient and helpful, it is important to compile certain information in preparation. Typing out this information and bringing it to your office visit is a great idea. It is also a great idea to keep this as a running file that you can continue adding to in your personal files. This helps to eliminate time wasted in the office that could easily be organized and thought through prior to the visit, allowing more time for the important parts of the office visit; optimizing the diagnosis and treatment plans. Some of this information you may not have available, and that is certainly ok. You may be able to retrieve some of it from records, memory, and your local pharmacist.
Never assume that your local doctor’s office has faxed all of your records ahead of the visit. If that happens, great. However, many times patients are told that the records will be sent, but when we see the patient, we have no records that were sent. So, it is always best to bring all of your records yourself. Furthermore, it is good to have copies of all of your medical records, testing, etc. for your personal files anyway.
The following list are items that I have found to be the most useful for patients to have gathered and thought of prior to the visit, allowing the most efficient and useful office visit:
A) Acute/abortive headache or pain treatments (used “as needed”). This information is also needed in order to pursue insurance approvals for various types of treatments such as the newer gepants (Ubrelvy, Nurtec) or ditans (Reyvow).
-All that have been tried (which triptans, NSAIDs, neuromodulation devices, etc.)
-Responses (effectiveness, side effects) of each treatment
B) Preventive headache or pain treatments (used daily to lessen headache frequency/severity). This information is also needed in order to pursue insurance approvals for various treatments such as Botox or the CGRP mAb antagonists (Aimovig, Ajovy, Emgality, Vyepti).
-All that have been tried
-Maximum doses used
-Duration that each treatment was used
-Responses (effectiveness, side effects) of each treatment
-All CD and radiology reports for all brain MRIs, CTs, and other relevant testing for your headache or pain. Most CDs do not include the radiology report, and you need to request that separately. It is a good idea to have copies of all of these things for your personal files regardless. Bring them all to the office visit for the doctor to review.
-All bloodwork done in the past 5 years. Labs particularly important for headache evaluations include TSH, CBC, CMP, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, ESR, CRP, ANA, to name a few, but this may vary and include more or less, depending on the specific clinical scenario.
D) Think about the clinical features of your headache or facial pain as listed below. These will be important questions that your headache specialist will ask. So, it is good to answer these questions in your head prior to the visit, so you can provide more accurate and thought out answers. This helps to prevent being put on the spot by questions you never really thought about which may result in forgetting some important details. For a free headache and facial pain self-diagnosis tool which incorporates all of these important questions that a headache specialist asks, look here.
-Location of the headache or facial pain
-Frequency of the headache or facial pain attacks
-Duration of the headache or facial pain attacks
-Description and characterization of the headache or facial pain attacks
-Neurological symptoms associated with the headache or facial pain (visual disturbances, numbness, tingling, weakness, speech disturbances, vertigo, etc.)
-Other associated symptoms with the headache or facial pain (nausea, sensitivity to light or sound, one sided autonomic features (runny eye, red eye, runny or congested nose, droopy or puffiness around eye))
If you are able to gather all or much of the above listed information prior to your headache specialist appointment, you’ll be well on your way to a much more efficient and beneficial office visit. As a result, you and your doctor will be able spend more time in the office discussing the most important things rather than spending it trying to look up records or digging through your memory for various details. As a result, your doctor will have more time to better formulate a list of the most likely diagnoses, and best treatment approaches for minimizing the disruption of your headache or facial pain on your life. Good luck!!