Imaging in the evaluation of headache

Med Clin North Am. 2013 Mar;97(2):243-65. doi: 10.1016/j.mcna.2012.11.004. Epub 2012 Dec 22.


When deciding to perform imaging for headache, it is important to consider many factors including the pretest probability, prevalence of diseases, sensitivity of imaging, and implications for treatment. For the first presentation of a headache or a change in headache pattern, if the characteristics do not perfectly fit a primary headache type, imaging may be indicated according to the ICHD-2 criteria to exclude a secondary cause before a primary headache is diagnosed. The value of negative imaging should not be underestimated in the cost-benefit analysis, which often only takes into account number needed to treat or likelihood of finding a significant treatable abnormality. One study has shown that some groups of patients are less likely to overuse other parts of the health care system after negative neuroimaging. Further studies with stronger methodologies, finer differentiation of acute and chronic headache presentations, more advanced imaging technology, among other factors, can improve decision making on when to use imaging and assess the impact of imaging on patient satisfaction and quality of life. In addition, functional MRI, MRS, and voxel-based morphometry MRI are only some of the neuroimaging techniques currently used in research to further understand the pathophysiology and mechanisms of headache. In conclusion, although most headaches are a primary headache disorder with a benign course, imaging is an important part of the diagnostic evaluation to exclude the presence of a secondary cause of headache that could cause fatal results or severe neurologic morbidity. In headache patients without focal neurologic examination abnormalities, the yield of neuroimaging for significant intracranial findings is generally low. However, specific subgroups of headache patients and headache presentations can have much higher rates of significant intracranial abnormalities.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Cerebrovascular Disorders / complications
  • Chronic Disease
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Headache Disorders, Secondary / diagnosis*
  • Headache Disorders, Secondary / etiology*
  • Humans
  • Immunocompromised Host
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Neoplasms / complications
  • Physical Exertion
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed
  • Vascular Diseases / complications
  • Wounds and Injuries / complications