When the worst headache is a warning sign

May 9, 2013 3:08:32 PM PDT
Jackie Jaeger is a busy mom and a part-time producer for ABC News. Three days after the birth of her first child, she woke up from a nap with what she calls the "worst headache of her life."

"Something I had never felt before. It was very scary and it came on like a clap of thunder," Jaeger said.

At first, doctors thought it was another migraine, but when it got worse she called her neurologist.

"He ordered a test and it came back that I had a blood clot," Jaeger said.

Dr. Larry Newman is director of the headache institute at Roosevelt Hospital. He diagnosed Jackie and says a sudden headache in women just before or after giving birth is always a concern.

"Their blood clots much more easily and because of that they can have blood clots forming in certain areas of the brain," Dr. Newman said.

And that thunderclap Jackie described is another red flag.

"Thunderclap is a headache that comes on like a bolt out of the blue," Dr. Newman said. "That usually indicates something bad has happened an aneurysm has ruptured or a blood clot has formed."

Another warning sign is a severe headache with exertion, coughing or sexual activity.

"We worry there's an aneurysm that's ruptured or other form of bleeding into the brain because those activities cause increased pressure in the brain," he said.

A brain tumor can present in different ways, but Dr. Newman says watch for 3 signs: a headache that keeps getting worse, that wakes you up at night, or is associated with vomiting (but you don't feel nauseous).

"They can have neurologic findings they can trouble speaking, trouble seeing, weakness on one side of their body," Dr. Newman said.

Jackie says she still worries every time she gets a headache, but she's been fine ever since and hopes you will not ignore the warning signs.

"I think this is a story too about knowing your body," she said. "Sometimes I think if I had just let it go for a few more hours or another day what would have happened."

If you're someone who gets headaches all the time, any change in your headache is a warning sign and, as always, when in doubt check it out.