Information giving post pic

Frequent Headaches – OSCE Case

If you'd like to support us, check out our awesome products:

You are a junior doctor working in General Practice. Your first patient in the clinic is a 24 year old woman with frequent headaches. Work through the case to reach a diagnosis.

UK Medical Licensing Assessment (UKMLA)

This clinical case maps to the following UKMLA presentations:

You might also be interested in our premium collection of 1,300+ ready-made OSCE Stations, including a range of history taking, clinical examination and data interpretation stations ✨


Presenting complaint

“I’ve been experiencing headaches over the past 4 months. At first, I would only get a headache once every month, but I had two last week and ended up taking 4 days off work.”

History of presenting complaint

  • Where is the pain? –Β “It’s just here – above my left eye, on my forehead.”Β 
  • How would you describe the pain? –Β “It’s constant, throbbing pain.”Β 
  • Does it spread anywhere else? –Β “Sometimes, but not always, it spreads to the other side of my forehead. It can feel like my whole forehead is being stabbed by lots of needles.”Β 
  • How would you rate the pain out of 10, with 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever felt? –Β “It starts off around a 4, but within minutes it’s a 10.”
  • You mentioned earlier that they’re increasing in frequency. Have you identified any triggers? – “Well…I normally get them at home after a long day at work. I’d settle down to watch some TV with a glass of wine and then if I start getting pins and needles in my hands, I know I’m going to get the headache within half an hour.”
  • So you get some symptoms before the headache? –Β “Yeah, I get pins and needles in my hands which travels up to my neck. Sometimes I feel a little bit sick as well.”Β 
  • Have you had any vomiting? –Β “No, never.”
  • Do you get any changes in your vision, for example, flashing lights or patchy areas of visual loss? –Β “No, never.”
  • How long does the headache last? –Β “It normally lasts around a day but can last up to 3. That’s why I couldn’t work for most of last week – when I get the headache, all I can do is lie in bed with the curtains drawn.”
  • Does anything make the headache better? – “Paracetamol used to help in the beginning but now I don’t bother – it doesn’t touch it! I find lying in the dark is the only way I can cope.”Β 
  • Does anything make the headache worse? – “Bright light, loud sounds – and I’ve learnt to stop drinking wine as soon as I get the pins and needles as it just makes it worse!”

Other areas of the history


  • Aura: Enquire about other non-specific symptoms that may precede the headache by up to one day (e.g. changes in speech, weakness, changes in appetite, drowsiness, yawning, alterations in mood, diarrhoea)
  • Triggers: stress, dehydration, sleep deprivation, dietary factors such as cheese or chocolate
  • Is there more than one type of headache present?

Past medical history:

  • Medical conditions
  • Mental health conditions (e.g. depression, anxiety)
  • Menstrual history (possible predisposing factors)


  • Drugs such as oral contraceptives and vasodilators may be potential triggers.
  • Excessive intake of over-the-counter analgesics such as paracetamol or codeine may lead to medication overuse headache.

Family history:

  • Do other family members have problems with chronic/recurrent headaches?

Social history:

  • Occupation
  • Accommodation (including who the patient lives with)
  • Alcohol history
  • Smoking history

Ideas, concerns and expectations:

  • What does the patient think is going on?
  • Is the patient concerned about anything sinister?
  • What is the patient expecting from this appointment?

For more information, see our OSCE guide to headache history taking.


“I don’t get any other symptoms before the headache. I’ve got no other medical problems. I have regular periods every month but there doesn’t seem to be any association with the headaches. I don’t take any regular medications apart from the odd paracetamol. No one in my family suffers from headaches. I am quite stressed at work at the moment because we’re short-staffed but my manager is really good about not taking work home so I try to relax in the evenings. I live quite happily by myself at the moment. I don’t smoke but I like a glass of wine every night after work. I’m really hoping you can give some stronger painkillers for these headaches.”

The most likely diagnosis isΒ migraine.

Table 1. Comparison of migraine, cluster headaches and tension-type headaches.

  Migraine Cluster headaches Tension-type headaches
Location Commonly unilateral and frontal (but can be bilateral, occipital or generalised) Unilateral; in, above or around the eye and/or temporal region Bilateral (can be unilateral)
Onset Often preceded by an aura Often occur at the same time of the day or night Variable
Duration Hours to days Minutes to hours Minutes to days
Severity Moderate-severe; increase in severity over minutes to several hours (more rapid than tension-type) Severe or very severe; increases in severity over minutes to an hour or so Mild-to-moderate, increases in severity slowly over hours
Key characteristic Headache and associated symptoms evolve; initial symptoms improve or resolve before later symptoms appear or reach their full intensity Occur up to 8 x a day with headache-free days/months in between bouts Non-throbbing tight/pressure band, fluctuates from hour to hour, day to day
Triggers Multiple, including routine physical activity Alcohol Does not worsen with routine physical activity
Associated symptoms Nausea, photophobia, phonophobia Ipsilateral conjunctival reddening and watering, ipsilateral nostril blockage, transient Horner’s syndrome No nausea, phonophobia, photophobia

Clinical examination


  • Papilloedema is a red flag and requires urgent investigation via CT/MRI (tumour probability >1%).
  • Other causes of raised intracranial pressureΒ include CNS infections such as encephalitis or meningitis, head injury, aneurysm, hypertension, stroke and intracranial bleeding.

Neurological examination

  • Carrying out a neurological examination of the cranial nerves in addition to the upper and lower limbs can be useful to rule out signs of other intracranial pathology (e.g. limb weakness secondary to a brain tumour).

Blood pressure (BP)

  • Malignant hypertension (hypertensive emergency), although rare, is associated with potentially irreversible target organ damage over days or weeks. Headaches are one of the commonest symptoms. The BP is typically greater than 180/120 mmHg.

Temporal arteritis

  • In temporal arteritis (giant cell arteritis), the headache is associated with jaw claudication and a tender temporal artery. It is a rheumatological emergency; high-dose steroids are required to prevent permanent visual loss. Definitive diagnosis is via a temporal artery biopsy. However, treatment is usually initiated immediately if there is strong clinical suspicion.

Idiopathic intracranial hypertension: raised intracranial pressure due to an unknown cause (diagnosis of exclusion); most common in obese women of childbearing age and associated with certain antibiotics and oral contraceptives.

Medication overuse headache: typically has both migraine and tension-type features. Aspirin, codeine and NSAIDs are common causes.

Post-traumatic headache: diagnosed only when a new type of headache begins within seven days of head or neck injury.

Subarachnoid haemorrhage: approximately 50% of patients may have a prodrome ‘a sentinel’ headache before the classic severe, sudden-onset ‘thunderclap’ headache. CT and lumbar puncture may be required.

Low-pressure headache: usually worse with standing and improves with lying down. Caused by a spontaneous or iatrogenic dural tear (e.g. post-epidural analgesia).


Managing migraines requires a holistic approach, including patient education and lifestyle modifications. It is important to reassure the patient that whilst migraines can’t be cured, effective treatment is available, and the symptoms usually improve over time. Pharmacological options are available for both acute and prophylactic management.Β 



  • Keep a diary to identify your triggers.
  • Record your activities, diet and mood every day.
  • Tiredness, stress, anxiety and depression are all very common triggers.


  • Dehydration is another common trigger and can also lead to other health problems.
  • Aim to drink 6-8 glasses of water daily at regular intervals.


  • Eating a balanced diet is important but if you have noticed certain food triggers, try reducing or cutting them out of your diet.
  • Common triggers are cheese, caffeine, red wine, chocolate and citrus fruits such as oranges.

Vitamin B2

  • Consider trying vitamin B2 supplements (available over the counter), which have been shown to reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines for some patients.


  • It’s easy to underestimate environmental triggers such as cigarette smoke, flickering lights and loud noises but simple to make a few adjustments.
  • Take regular breaks when using electronic screens.


  • Take ibuprofen or paracetamol early on during a migraine.


  • If ibuprofen isn’t working, discuss with your GP about stronger acute pain relief such as sumatriptan.
  • Anti-nausea medication may also be beneficial (e.g. metoclopramide).Β 

Follow-up with the patient is essential to determine the effectiveness of treatment and to see if there are any indications for additional prophylactic (preventive) treatment. Some patients may be at risk of medication overuse headaches due to regular use of acute painkillers. The absence of any response to treatment (e.g. with triptans) should make you reconsider the diagnosis.


1. Migraine attacks that occur two or more times per month and that cause functional disability for several days (e.g. not being able to work or study).

2. The patient regularly uses triptans or other painkillers two or more days a week.

  • It is important to rule out medication overuse headaches before starting preventive treatment.
  • If a medication overuse headache is suspected, do not start preventive treatment, commence tapered drug withdrawal instead.

3. Triptans or other painkillers are ineffective or contraindicated.

  • Topiramate or propranolol are first-line options for preventive treatment. As topiramate is teratogenic and interferes with some hormonal contraceptives, appropriate counselling is required.
  • Acupuncture therapy, botulinum toxin therapy and amitriptyline are all second-line treatment options.
  • It is important to explain to the patient that preventive treatment aims to reduce the frequency of migraines, but acute treatment may still be required.


Andrew Gowland


  1. NICE guidance. Management of migraine (with or without aura). Available from: [LINK].
  2. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. Migraine. Available from: [LINK].
  3. Gates, P. (2010). Clinical Neurology a primer. Sydney: Elsevier Australia.
  4. Migraine overview. Available from: [LINK].
  5. BMJ Best Practice. Migraine. Available from: [LINK].


Print Friendly, PDF & Email