Headache Patients: Stop getting your Head Scanned!

You have a horrible headache.  Maybe it’s the worst ever.  Or maybe it’s accompanied by strange symptoms.  Is it serious?  Deadly?  Better get a scan to check it out…

Wait!  Not so fast.  Getting a CT scan (computed tomography scan) or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging scan) might sound like a good idea – “better safe than sorry” – but it could do more harm than good.

No scans for headache!

Thankfully, doctors are being educated about when to use and not use scans.  But there are still doctors who are quick to use them – and even patients that demand a scan when it’s really not needed.

The guideline is simple, really.  Scans should only be done when there is a good reason to suspect that something will show up – something related to the headache symptoms the patient is experiencing.  That includes very few headache patients.

So what’s the problem?  Here are some reasons why scans should usually not be done.

  • CT Scans:  Radiation.  This is the easy one.  Recent studies have once again raised concerns about the link between CT scans and cancer.  Don’t expose your body to radiation unless you’re sure it’s necessary, and the benefits outweigh the risks.
  • CT/MRI:  There’s often a better way.  The doctor can often use a better, more accurate method to find out what’s wrong.  Just because these are well known methods, doesn’t mean they’re the best.  And just because they find nothing doesn’t mean there’s no physical problem.
  • CT/MRI:  Time and expense.  Admittedly, the expense is often what drives concerns here.  As patients, we’re in favour of methods that accurately diagnose the problem – no matter what the expense.  On the other hand, when time and money is being wasted on a method that won’t help, there’s a problem.  Yes, it is an issue for all of us when money is being wasted on unnecessary scans.  Besides, your time is valuable, right?
  • CT/MRI:  The last issue is the danger of unnecessary treatment.  Here’s how it works.  You have one of these amazingly accurate scans, and your doctor finds “something wrong”.  We all have “something wrong” with us, but many of those things never lead to any symptoms.  This “something wrong” your doctor finds leads to treatments, maybe even surgery.  All of this does harm to your body.  But does it solve the problem?

    This is a huge issue right now, because so many tests are available.  Statistically, many people are receiving unnecessary treatments and surgery, leading to more complications – when the “something wrong” wasn’t the thing causing the symptoms in the first place.

In short, even “safe” scans like MRIs (although even there accidents happen), and other tests such as EEGs, can lead to more problems for you when they’re used “just because”.

What should I do?

If your doctor recommends a scan, ask why.  If she can’t give you a very specific answer, but just wants to “cover all the bases”, get a second opinion.

If a friend or family member is pressuring you to have a scan, send them to this post. 🙂

I’ve been there – it’s tempting to get every test possible, especially when you’ve spent months or years trying to find a solution.  But for most of us, these types of scans just mean spending more time on the wrong thing.

MRI and CT scans are wonderful tools that have saved many lives.  And yes, in a few headache cases they are a big help.  We should be very thankful that they’re available.  But let’s use the tools wisely.

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5 comments… add one
  • Toni Mar 21, 2014

    Completely agree.

  • Mandy May 22, 2016

    I hate to be the “nay sayer” but you have to remember headaches and migrains can be early signs of some nasty illnesses which if not caught early can significantly lower the chances of survival. My migraines are not a sign of anything bad but a friend of mine with literally the same symptoms as me turned out to have MS. His doctor didn’t order an MRI because he didn’t have any symptoms other than migraines. Two years after his migraines started he had an accident at work and emergancy room doctors ordered a scan to check for brain damage. They found the MS and it turns out the migrains where the first warning signs, he fell at work because of the MS. His doctor is having trouble getting the MS under control and feels that had the prevous doctor actually ordered a scan when the migraines started they would have had a better chance of slowing it. MRIs are safe and they don’t take all that long (my longest was 30mins) and yes getting one costs a lot but they can be the difference between an early intervention or a too late diagnosis.

  • Katie Nov 23, 2016

    I disagree, ignorance is not bliss! More knowledge is a good thing. Sounds like this was written by an HMO.

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