Acute headache management in emergency department. A narrative review

Intern Emerg Med. 2020 Jan;15(1):109-117. doi: 10.1007/s11739-019-02266-2. Epub 2020 Jan 1.


Headache is a significant reason for access to Emergency Departments (ED) worldwide. Though primary forms represent the vast majority, the life-threatening potential of secondary forms, such as subarachnoid hemorrage or meningitis, makes it imperative for the ED physician to rule out secondary headaches as first step, based on clinical history, careful physical (especially neurological) examination and, if appropriate, hematochemical analyses, neuroimaging or lumbar puncture. Once secondary forms are excluded, distinction among primary forms should be performed, based on the international headache classification criteria. Most frequent primary forms motivating ED observation are acute migraine attacks, particularly status migrainous, and cluster headache. Though universally accepted guidelines do not exist for headache management in an emergency setting, pharmacological parenteral treatment remains the principal approach worldwide, with NSAIDs, neuroleptic antinauseants, triptans and corticosteroids, tailored to the specific headache type. Opioids should be avoided, for their scarce effectiveness in the acute phase, while IV hydration should be limited in cases of ascertained dehydration. Referral of the patient to a Headache Center should subsequently be an integral part of the ED approach to the headache patients, being ascertained that lack of this referral involves a high rate of relapse and new accesses to the ED. More controlled studies are needed to establish specific protocols of management for the headache patient in the ED.

Keywords: Drugs; Emergency department; Headache; Management; Migraine; Secondary headache.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / therapeutic use
  • Brain Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Brain Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Disease Management
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / organization & administration
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data
  • Glaucoma / diagnosis
  • Glaucoma / physiopathology
  • Headache / diagnosis
  • Headache / drug therapy*
  • Headache / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Meningitis / diagnosis
  • Meningitis / physiopathology
  • Subarachnoid Hemorrhage / diagnosis
  • Subarachnoid Hemorrhage / physiopathology


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal