The Value of a Headache Specialist
Why a headache specialist can be the trick to effectively treating migraine
Although many neurologists and primary care physicians treat people living with migraine, a true headache specialist has specific qualifications that make them especially equipped to treat migraine and other headache disorders.
People living with migraine and severe head pain should seek treatment from a headache specialist, according to Dr. Kathleen Digre, MD, a professor of neurology and ophthalmology and the division director for headache and neuro-ophthalmology at the University of Utah. “When a headache becomes more frequent and treatments aren’t working—or the diagnosis is not clear—then it’s time to see a headache specialist,” she says.
What Is a Headache Specialist?
A headache specialist is a physician who has taken an active interest in headache, attends meetings to understand the scientific side of headache, and is enthusiastic about treating headache, Dr. Digre says. Headache specialists can be UCNS-certified, which is a certification under the United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties, an organization that provides neurologic fellowship programs. This designation is relatively new, though, and not all headache specialists are UCNS-certified.
Who Should See a Headache Specialist?
Dr. Digre recommends people with complicated headache and unusual symptoms—such as feeling weak or numb, having prolonged auras or experiencing migraine for longer than 72 hours—consult a headache specialist. In addition, Dr. Digre says people who are not headache prone but have been experiencing headache should consider seeing a specialist. People who have numerous complicated medical problems in addition to migraine may need to see a headache specialist as well.
Consider visiting a headache specialist if you’re dissatisfied with your current medication(s), are pregnant or nursing, experience headache 2 or more days per week or recently experienced what you would describe as the worst headache of your life. You may also want to a see headache specialist if headache is making you miss out on social gatherings, school of work. If your symptoms are preventing you from doing the activities you love and are affecting your relationships with your friends and family members, it may be time to discuss your treatment options with a specialist.
Consulting a Headache Specialist
Anyone who has tried numerous treatments without success and is considering seeing a headache specialist should first consult his or her primary care doctor, Dr. Digre says. Patients should then ask their doctor if there is a local headache specialist he or she recommends. “Usually primary care physicians have networks of people that they refer to, and know where people can get a good opinion,” Dr. Digre says.
Preparing for Your First Visit with a Headache Specialist
The most important thing you can arm yourself with prior to meeting with a headache specialist is information. Let your headache specialist know about any genetic predisposition you have to headache (for example, if your mother suffers from migraine). Bring your imaging and list of current and past medications to your appointment. Write down any questions you have for the specialist ahead of time so the objective of the appointment is clear. There’s no downside to being overly prepared. “Learning as much as you can before you go and having all your information together when you go can make for a much more satisfying visit,” Dr. Digre says.
Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough headache specialists in the U.S. There are around 1,500 to 2,000 health care providers who have either been UCNS-certified or have taken a strong interest in headache and over 37 million people living with migraine, Dr. Digre says. Because of the lack of headache specialists in the U.S., wait times can often be long; however, people should not get discouraged while waiting to see a headache specialist. There is an abundance of educational materials available online, which you can use to manage your headache until your next appointment.