Thunderclap headaches can occur suddenly without warning. It is typically described as a severe, intense headache that peaks within minutes and can last for several hours.
These headaches can be a sign of a serious underlying condition, such as a brain aneurysm or hemorrhage, and it is important to seek medical attention if you experience one.
What is a thunderclap headache and what does it feel like?
A sudden and severe headache that does not gradually intensify is known as a thunderclap headache. It can be a warning sign of a life-threatening condition and should not be ignored.
The intensity of the pain can be extreme and immediate from the onset. Patients often describe it as the worst headache they have ever experienced.
While the majority of headaches are not indicative of a serious underlying issue, it is crucial to seek medical attention right away if you experience a thunderclap headache. These headaches are named for their sudden and dramatic onset.
Thunderclap headaches are characterized by:
- A very intense and painful headache that may be described as the worst headache you’ve ever experienced.
- The pain starts suddenly and rapidly increasing in intensity.
- The pain reaches its peak within 30 to 60 seconds.
What causes Thunderclap Headaches?
While the cause of thunderclap headaches is unclear for some individuals who experience them and are otherwise healthy, it is important to note that in other cases, they can be a symptom of a serious condition involving bleeding in the brain. Thus, they should be treated as a medical emergency.
A thunderclap headache is most commonly a symptom of a subarachnoid hemorrhage or bleeding in the brain, which can be life-threatening if not treated quickly.
The most frequent cause of this type of bleeding is a ruptured aneurysm in the brain. However, other serious and possibly life-threatening causes include:
- Torn, blocked, or ruptured blood vessels in the brain
- Hemorrhagic stroke
- Ischemic stroke
- Mild to moderate head injury
- Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome
- Vasculitis, or inflammation of a blood vessel
In some cases, a physical cause for the thunderclap headache may not be found, and it may be considered to be due to an idiopathic benign recurrent headache disorder. However, this type of headache can only be diagnosed after testing for all other causes.
Engaging in certain activities may trigger a thunderclap headache, such as:
- Strenuous physical labor
- Use of certain drugs, including illegal substances
- Rapid exposure to warm or hot water, such as when entering a shower or bath.
Regardless of the underlying cause, thunderclap headaches share common symptoms, which may include:
- A sudden onset of severe headache pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fainting or loss of consciousness
- A feeling that it’s the worst headache you’ve ever had
- Pain felt anywhere in your head, including the neck
- May be triggered by certain activities or have no trigger at all
In addition to the above symptoms, more warning signs of thunderclap headaches can include:
It is important to seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of these symptoms along with a thunderclap headache.
How long does a thunderclap headache last?
Although thunderclap headaches typically reach their peak intensity within 30 to 60 seconds of onset, they may not be short-lived.
These headaches can last for up to an hour or more after reaching their maximum intensity, and in some instances, they can persist for several hours, days, or even weeks.
How to Detect if you have Thunderclap Headache
To diagnose thunderclap headaches, your doctor will likely ask you a series of questions such as:
- Have you experienced headaches like this before?
- Have you had other types of headaches in the past?
- How frequently do you experience these headaches?
- What are the characteristics and symptoms of the headaches?
- How severe are the headaches?
- What, if anything, provides relief or exacerbates the headaches?
Additionally, your doctor may order tests such as:
- CT scan of the head: This imaging test uses X-rays to create detailed cross-sectional images of your brain and head. An iodine-based dye may be injected into your veins to enhance certain areas of your brain.
- Spinal tap (lumbar puncture): A small amount of cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord is removed and tested for signs of bleeding or infection.
- MRI: This imaging test uses a combination of magnetic fields and radio waves to create cross-sectional images of the inside of your brain.
- Magnetic resonance angiography: An MRA test utilizes MRI machines to map the blood flow inside your brain.
While the idea of visiting a doctor to identify or exclude a severe medical condition can be daunting, it is crucial not to self-diagnose and, most importantly, not to delay seeking medical assistance.
An early diagnosis may potentially save your life. Moreover, it can enable your doctor to exclude the possibility of anything serious and give you peace of mind. Seeking medical attention is the only way to obtain a reliable diagnosis.
Treating Thunderclap Headaches
There are multiple treatment possibilities based on what’s causing your thunderclap headaches.
Treatments may include:
- Surgery to repair a tear or blockage
- Medications to control blood pressure
- Pain medications to control recurrent thunderclap headaches, especially those that have a specific trigger
This isn’t a complete list of treatment options for a thunderclap headache. Your doctor will advise you of treatment options based on the specific cause of your headaches.
Seeking immediate medical attention is essential to determine the underlying cause and receive appropriate treatment.
Take Care of Yourself!