Headache Physical Exam

Know more about how to do a physical examination for a headache with this guide, and grab a copy of a helpful template you can use during the assessment.

By Patricia Buenaventura on Feb 29, 2024.

Fact Checked by Ericka Pingol.

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What is a headache physical examination?

A headache physical examination is a comprehensive assessment conducted by a healthcare professional to identify and understand the underlying causes of an individual's headache. This process is crucial for accurate headache diagnosis and subsequent treatment.

The examination consists of various steps designed to gather specific information about the patient's health and symptoms. Here's a list of the aforementioned steps:

  • Gather information: General health, medical history, and family history of headaches or migraines
  • Checking vital signs: Blood pressure, reflexes, and temperature
  • Assessing demeanor: Signs of restlessness or calmness
  • Identifying any neurologic issues: Visual changes, weakness, tingling, and balance issues
  • Checking for head symptoms: Signs of swelling in the scalp, temporal artery, jaw-to-skull joints, and throat behind the mouth
  • Checking for eye symptoms: Changes in visual field, responsiveness to light, and pupil size
  • Checking for neck symptoms: Identify stiffness or discomfort
  • Checking for cervical spine symptoms: Scrutinized for tenderness

This thorough examination aims to rule out underlying conditions such as sinus infections, toothaches, and head injuries that might be associated with the headaches. Furthermore, it aids in recognizing patterns that could indicate migraine, tension headaches, or cluster headaches, enabling the healthcare professional to determine the most suitable course of treatment.

Printable Headache Physical Exam

Download this Headache Physical Exam to help to rule out underlying conditions such as sinus infections, toothaches, and head injuries that might be associated with the headaches.

Signs and symptoms your patient needs a headache exam

A patient with a headache may require a headache examination if they manifest specific signs and symptoms indicative of underlying health issues. Signs and symptoms may be any of the following:

  • Distinctive headache characteristics: Intense, sharp/stabbing pain, unilateral headaches lasting up to three hours, or persistent dull headache that doesn't throb
  • Systemic symptoms: Runny nose, nasal congestion, sweating, warm skin, restlessness, droopy eyelid, tears, eye redness, stiff neck, shoulder pain, sensation of tightness around the head
  • Neurological symptoms: Gradual progression or sudden onset of explosive headaches
  • Meningeal symptoms: Neck stiffness or photophobia
  • Focal neurologic deficits: Weakness, double vision, sensory issues, gait problems
  • Others: Nausea and vomiting

Special consideration should be given to elderly patients with new-onset headaches, as temporal arteritis may be a potential concern.

If headaches are frequent, debilitating, and significantly impact daily activities, the patient must seek medical help. It is essential to recognize that these symptoms are diverse and may point to various underlying conditions; therefore, only a healthcare professional can provide accurate diagnosis and appropriate management.

Headache disorders

Before you finalize your headache diagnosis, you should know the different headache disorders your patient may have.

Primary headache disorders

Migraine headache

Among the primary headache disorders, a migraine headache stands out as a complex tapestry of pain that often emerges during puberty and predominantly affects individuals between the ages of 35 and 45. A migraine headache is notorious for its debilitating nature, with symptoms encompassing throbbing head pain, heightened sensitivity to light and sound, and, in some cases, nausea and vomiting.

Tension-type headache

Tension-type headache emerges as a commonplace primary headache disorder, affecting a considerable portion of the population. Characterized by a dull, persistent pain often described by most patients as a 'tightening' sensation, these headaches can be chronic or episodic, contributing to a significant burden on individuals and society.

Trigeminal Autonomic Cephalalgias (TAC)

Trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias (TAC) present a cluster of conditions marked by neurologic symptoms and intense, severe pain episodes. This category includes notorious entities like cluster headache and paroxysmal hemicrania, which, while relatively rare, induce excruciating pain and are often accompanied by autonomic symptoms like tearing nasal congestion, or drooping eyelids.

Other primary headache disorders

Beyond the more prevalent categories, the realm of primary headache disorders encompasses a diverse spectrum of conditions under the 'Other' classification. This includes headaches triggered by coughing, physical activity or exertion, or even during sleep (hypnic headaches).

Secondary headache disorders

Unlike primary headaches, which are standalone disorders, secondary headaches are symptoms signifying an associated disease or condition.

Headache attributable to trauma

Secondary headaches stemming from trauma illuminate the interconnected relationship between physical injuries and resultant head pain. Whether caused by accidents or other forms of head trauma alone, these headaches serve as poignant indicators of underlying damage and necessitate thorough evaluation.

Vascular disorders

Vascular disorders encapsulate a category of secondary headaches intricately linked to issues within the circulatory system. From conditions affecting blood vessels to more severe manifestations like arterial dissections, this class underscores the importance of understanding the intricate interplay between vascular health and headaches.

Nonvascular intracranial disorders

Beyond vascular realms, nonvascular intracranial disorders shed light on conditions within the cranial space that can contribute to headaches. This category encompasses a spectrum of conditions, from benign intracranial hypertension to more complex intracranial pathologies.

Substance use or withdrawal

A secondary headache associated with substance use or withdrawal emphasizes the intricate relationship between chemical dependencies and their impact on neurological well-being. Headache onset that arose from medication overuse or withdrawal symptoms underscores the need for a comprehensive understanding of a patient's substance-related history.


Infections, ranging from common ailments to more severe conditions, can manifest as secondary headaches. This category highlights how pathogens can impact neurological function and contribute to head pain.

Disorders of hemostasis

Disorders affecting the body's coagulation dynamics are implicated in secondary headaches. Understanding the intricacies of hemostasis becomes crucial in deciphering the underlying causes of these headaches.

Disorders affecting the structures of the head or neck

Structural anomalies within the head or neck can give rise to an acute headache and a secondary headache. From abnormalities in cranial structures to issues within the cervical spine, this category emphasizes the importance of considering anatomical influences.

How does this physical examination template work?

Step 1. Access the template

Begin by accessing the headache physical examination template. This may be a digital form within an electronic health record (EHR) system or a paper-based document. For your ease, you can find such a template in Carepatron's template library or within this guide. Click the "Use Template" or "Download Template" button to obtain a copy. Feel free to customize the template to ensure that it aligns with the specific requirements of the patient encounter.

In addition, to help you out, you may use supplemental resources like a headache chart or headache location chart to aid you with diagnosis.

Step 2. Review patient information

Before initiating the physical examination, review the patient's medical history and any existing health records. This preliminary understanding aids in customizing the examination based on the patient's unique health status, family history, and concerns.

Step 3. Conduct assessments

Start with a comprehensive assessment of vital signs, including blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature. Then, systematically observe and document general aspects of the patient's appearance. Note signs of distress, abnormalities, or relevant information such as skin color, posture, and overall demeanor.

Afterward, you may proceed to the body systems (e.g., cardiovascular, respiratory, neurological). Follow the structured order outlined in the template to ensure a thorough examination. For each system, follow the specific examination components outlined in the template. If applicable, perform a neurological examination, including cranial nerves, reflexes, and sensory/motor function assessments.

Feel free to conduct specialized assessments based on the patient's condition or complaints.

Step 4: Document findings

As examinations are conducted, meticulously document findings in the designated spaces on the template. Use clear and concise language to accurately convey observations, measurements, and any abnormalities detected during the examination.

Step 5: Summary and assessment

Conclude the physical examination template with a summary of findings and an initial assessment. This section may include provisional diagnoses, recommended further investigations, or specialist referrals.

Step 6: Communicate with the patient

Share relevant findings with the patient clearly and compassionately by telling them or showing them the filled-out template. Address any concerns or questions they may have, fostering open communication and ensuring a collaborative approach to healthcare.

Step 7: Record keeping

Ensure the completed physical examination template is appropriately saved or filed in the patient's health record. This documentation is a vital reference for future assessments, care planning, and continuity of care.

Step 8: Follow-Up actions

Based on the findings and assessments, outline any necessary follow-up actions, whether additional diagnostic tests, consultations, or a scheduled follow-up appointment.

Headache physical examination example (sample)

Embarking on a thorough headache examination is a pivotal aspect of healthcare, necessitating a systematic approach to uncover underlying causes and guide effective treatment. We present a completed headache exam template to aid healthcare providers in this crucial endeavor.

This sample template can serve as a possible structured guide and source for insight into one way to conduct your assessment. Whether you are a seasoned healthcare professional or a student eager to delve into headache assessments, this template offers a valuable reference point, promoting consistency, accuracy, and efficiency in the examination process. However, note that the information provided in the example is purely fictional.

Download this free Headache physical examination example here

Headache physical examination example (sample)

When to seek professional help

If headaches persist, disrupt daily activities, or are accompanied by alarming symptoms such as confusion, weakness, slurred speech, loss of consciousness, blurry vision, nausea, vomiting, or high fever, encourage your patient to seek immediate medical attention. Professional evaluation is imperative for accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment plans.

Why use Carepatron as your general practice software?

Carepatron stands out as a compelling choice in general practice software, offering features designed to enhance efficiency and streamline operations.

One of the critical reasons practitioners opt for Carepatron is its commitment to providing an all-in-one practice management solution. By seamlessly integrating patient records, medical notes, and documentation with invoicing and payment tools, Carepatron significantly simplifies administrative tasks, allowing healthcare professionals to allocate their time and resources more effectively.

A pivotal aspect of Carepatron's appeal lies in its robust appointment scheduling capabilities. The software empowers practitioners to take control of their schedules through an intuitive desktop or mobile app interface. Automated appointment reminders and a fully integrated video calling tool further contribute to maximizing productivity and ensuring efficient patient engagement.

Health records are a cornerstone of effective patient care, and Carepatron excels in providing secure storage for all patient information, clinical notes, and documentation. The platform's auto-save feature guarantees the preservation of crucial data, eliminating the risk of information loss.

Carepatron's emphasis on facilitating financial transactions sets it apart in general practice software. The platform enables practitioners to accept online or mobile payments, simplifying clients' billing process and improving healthcare providers' cash flow.

Furthermore, the patient portal integrated into Carepatron encompasses a booking system, payment information, and medical records. This inclusive feature enhances the quality of healthcare services and removes accessibility barriers, fostering improved patient engagement and satisfaction.

Carepatron stands at the forefront with its telehealth features in the era of evolving healthcare practices. Supporting electronic medical records management, automating administrative work, enhancing patient communication, and providing mobile health and telehealth apps, Carepatron enables practitioners to improve the quality of healthcare services and expand their reach and business capabilities.

While choosing a practice management software is nuanced and dependent on specific needs, Carepatron's comprehensive offerings make it a notable contender for healthcare professionals seeking a user-friendly, all-encompassing solution for their general practice needs.

So, if you think Carepatron is the software for you, join the thousands of health providers already benefitting from Carepatron's tools and features. Create an account and get access today!

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How do you assess headache pain?
How do you assess headache pain?

Commonly asked questions

How do you assess headache pain?

You can assess headache pain by checking its location, duration, severity, onset, and quality. Afterward, you may use a headache physical examination template to obtain more detailed information.

What physical exam is done for migraines?

The physical exam done for a migraine headache is the same as the one used for headaches in general.

What are the examinations for headaches?

Aside from physical examinations, the referring physician may request additional examinations to diagnose the type of headache the patient may have, such as blood and imaging tests.

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