Headache and Migraine Diagnosis: Signs You May Need an MRI

Health Education
3 min read
Headache and Migraine Diagnosis: Signs You May Need an MRI

Suffering from headaches and migraines is no fun. You’ll want todo anything possible to get some relief. One thing your doctor may suggest is getting magnetic resonance imaging (an MRI) done.

What Is an MRI?

Knowing that you may need this test may sound a bit scary if you don’t know the answer to “What is an MRI?” You really shouldn’t be scared toget this done, though, as it’s merely a type of medical imaging. 


An MRI takes images of your body’s anatomy and physiological processes using a combination of a strong magnetic field and radio waves. These combine to form images of your body’s various organs.

When do you need this test for diagnosing headaches?

There are several different occasions when your doctor may order this test, including:

  • If you’re getting headaches on a daily, or almost daily, basis
  • If you’ve had a CT scan whose results were inconclusive
  • If your headaches have changed or if your doctor feels like there’s anything unusual about them, especially if you are age 50 or older
  • If any additional symptoms occur with your headaches
  • If your doctor is concerned that there may be a structural problem that’s causing your headaches
  • If you suddenly develop a very severe headache that makes you feel like something has burst in your head
  • If your headaches have been happening after you’ve been physically active
  • If your headaches are accompanied by other serious symptoms, such as loss of control, seizures, or changes in speech or alertness

How does an MRI help your doctor?

With this test, your doctor can look at various parts of your brain that are hard to see with a CT scan. For instance, he can see both your spine at your neck’s level and the back part of your brain too. It’s important to understand that you can’t use an MRI scan to diagnose migraines or any type of headaches. However, with these scans, your doctor can see if you have any other medical conditions including:

  • A brain tumor
  • An abscess (an infection in your brain)
  • Hydrocephalus (the buildup of fluid in your brain)
  • Herniated discs or any other problems with your spinal cord
  • Strokes
  • Injuries

Is this test really necessary?

While an MRI is not critical to diagnose you with migraines, it can help your doctor see your brain’s structure. This is because there are primarily two different categories of headaches:

  • Primary headaches are those that don’t have a structural cause and include migraines
  • Secondary headaches are caused by a disease


There are also some times when a doctor discovers something with a physical exam that prompts them to suggest an MRI. If your doctor discovers any abnormalities, he may want to take a better look at your brain’s structure. These abnormalities may include things like:

  • Swelling of your optic nerve
  • Double vision
  • Loss of vision
  • Abnormal reflexes
  • Abnormal pupil reflex
  • Weakness on one side of your body
  • Unsteady gait
  • Confusion


Research studies using MRIs also show that some patients who suffer from migraines have a reduction in their cortical thickness and the surface area in their brain’s pain-processing regions compared to patients who don’t have migraines. While there are many possible reasons for this difference, it is important in helping doctors diagnose migraines.


If you’re suffering from headaches or migraines and think you may need an MRI scan, BASS Medical Group can help. Their elite team is made up of doctors who are experts in their respective fields. BASS Medical has many convenient locations in the greater San Francisco area.  Call (925) 350-4044 to learn more or schedule an appointment.