Headaches are perhaps one of the more ubiquitous health problems, with as many as 90% of U.S. adults suffering through the pain of a pounding head at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
Headaches may be common, but that makes them no less disruptive to a person’s ability to engage in life, work, school, or play. Because headaches affect so many people, researchers continue to investigate causes of headaches and possible ways of treating them. While common types like tension headaches are relatively well understood, more severe types like migraines continue to hold secrets researchers are working to unravel.
Most of the time, headaches do not indicate a more serious medical condition, according to MedlinePlus. In fact, most headaches can be alleviated by managing stress, drinking more water, or improving posture to reduce strain on the muscles that support the head and neck.
Only very rarely are headaches symptoms of more serious conditions, like brain tumors. Despite this, brain scans are relatively common and a controversy has arisen debating their use.
Brain scans: Life-saving or unnecessary cost?
Brain scans are a tremendously expensive enterprise, with about $1 billion in tests conducted each year, reports Health Day. Although federal guidelines don’t call for special brain scans to investigate ordinary headaches, doctors are increasingly calling for the tests.
From 1995 to 2010, the number of patients who underwent scans after visiting a doctor jumped from 5% to 15%. Dr. Brian Callaghan, an assistant neurobiology professor in the University of Michigan Health System, tells Health Day:
“Most people with headaches don’t need any testing.”
Only 1 to 3% of people who undergo brain scans are found to have a more serious health problem, like a brain tumor or malfunctioning blood vessel. Meanwhile, the expense and test anxiety can have a detrimental impact on patients.
Not all doctors agree, and other neurobiologists worry that skipping brain scans could leave some people with undiagnosed brain tumors, according to an article in Neurosurgery.
Nationally, the medical community including groups like the American College of Radiology has worked to raise awareness, urging people to skip brain scans for headaches that don’t include any abnormal symptoms like exceptionally bad pain, slurred speech, changes in vision, or difficulties in moving the arms or legs. In Neurosurgery, authors write:
“Although the intentions are laudable…these guidelines
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