What to Expect From a First-Time Visit to a Headache Specialist

How to prepare for your visit with a headache doctor

Many people living with migraine understand the value of a doctor who understands what they are going through and who is willing to help them find relief. But, with waiting lists up to six months or longer to be seen, that first appointment becomes even more critical—which is exactly why it’s essential to effectively prepare for your first visit.

We spoke with Dr. Cynthia Armand, a Headache Fellow at New York’s Montefiore Headache Center, about how to prepare for a first-time visit with a headache specialist.

Five steps to prepare for a first-time visit with a headache specialist

  1. Know your headache. Before visiting a headache specialist, the first thing to do is to be able to describe your symptoms to your doctor. To do this, apply the who, what, when, where, why, and how strategy. Be prepared to answer all of the following questions: 
  • Who—Who else in your family gets headaches besides you? If you don’t know the answer to this question, it’s important to ask your immediate family as this will help your doctor make a proper diagnosis.
  • What—What does your headache feel like? Describe whatever you’re feeling to the specialist, and use as much imagery and detail as possible. Sharp, dull, throbbing, pressure, and burning are all common and useful words to describe migraine, and the more specific you can be, the better.
  • Where—Is your pain only ever on one side? Is it one-sided but alternates sides? Is it on both sides but worse on one side? Where is the pain usually located: front, back, side, behind the eye?
  • When—When do you get headaches? Are they early in the morning or at the end of the day? Do you ever wake up with a headache? Are you more likely to get one during the workweek or the weekend? Get as specific as jotting down the exact minute a migraine attack sets in.
  • Why—This is the trigger section. Maybe your headaches start when the weather changes, when you get on a plane, or when you drink wine. If you notice triggers, record them in your headache diary.
  • How—How long do your headaches last, and how long do they take to intensify? Are they intense right away or do they gradually climb up to severe pain?
  1. Keep a headache diary

A headache diary allows you to track your who, what, when, where, why and how, and lets you know if the therapy you’re receiving is helping. Without a diary, you’re forced to rely on memory, which almost always results in errors. A diary is a simple and excellent tool for migraine patients, and it will help both you and your headache doctor ease the pain and find the right treatment.

  1. Know your medical history

Take some time to familiarize yourself with your full medical history before your appointment. “I cannot stress this enough,” Dr. Armand says. “You have to know your past in order for us to best help you out.” This means bringing a list of medical conditions, any medications you’re taking, allergies, past surgeries (especially brain, neck, or back), and family history of headaches or neurological diseases. Especially important is what medications for headache you’ve taken in the past, the duration of time you took them for, and the highest dose you took, and why you stopped taking the medication. If side effects was the reason you stopped, what side effects did you experience. You should also be prepared to talk about your social history, like where you live, what you do, whether you smoke, drink alcohol, and other lifestyle factors. People don’t always want to share this information, but it’s imperative to be open with your doctor to get the best results. “Don’t hide it, because then you’re hurting yourself, and you’re here to help yourself,” Dr. Armand says.

  1. Gather medical records

Since you might have to wait a few months for your appointment, you have time to gather past medical records from any other doctor you’ve seen. Have all medical records sent to your new doctor, and get copies of any brain or neck radiology images you’ve had taken. At your first visit, the specialist can answer any questions you have about the images. Bringing them also prevents having to retake the photos.

  1. Come with questions

There’s no such thing as a bad (or dumb) question, especially when it comes to your health. “I love questions, because it lets me know you’re engaged in your care and ready and willing to participate,” says Dr. Armand. Think of your questions as teachable moments that empower you to know more about your health. Jot them down in your headache diary as they come to you. You’ll be surprised at the questions you forgot you had as you flip through the pages.

With these five tips in hand, you are now equipped to make the most of your appointment, and leave with answers to your questions. We wish you the best of luck! And if you haven’t made an appointment with a headache specialist yet, please visit our website to find a doctor near you.