Neurophysiological tests and neuroimaging procedures in non-acute headache (2nd edition)


Professor Giorgio Sandrini, University Centre for Adaptive Disorders and Headache (UCADH), IRCCS C. Mondino Foundation, Pavia, Italy (tel.: +39 03 82 380 435 ; fax: +39 03 82 380 279; e-mail:


Background and purpose:  A large number of instrumental investigations are used in patients with non-acute headache in both research and clinical fields. Although the literature has shown that most of these tools contributed greatly to increasing understanding of the pathogenesis of primary headache, they are of little or no value in the clinical setting.

Methods:  This paper provides an update of the 2004 EFNS guidelines and recommendations for the use of neurophysiological tools and neuroimaging procedures in non-acute headache (first edition). Even though the period since the publication of the first edition has seen an increase in the number of published papers dealing with this topic, the updated guidelines contain only minimal changes in the levels of evidence and grades of recommendation.

Results:  (i) Interictal EEG is not routinely indicated in the diagnostic evaluation of patients with headache. Interictal EEG is, however, indicated if the clinical history suggests a possible diagnosis of epilepsy (differential diagnosis). Ictal EEG could be useful in certain patients suffering from hemiplegic or basilar migraine. (ii) Recording evoked potentials is not recommended for the diagnosis of headache disorders. (iii) There is no evidence warranting recommendation of reflex responses or autonomic tests for the routine clinical examination of patients with headache. (iv) Manual palpation of pericranial muscles, with standardized palpation pressure, can be recommended for subdividing patient groups but not for diagnosis. Pain threshold measurements and EMG are not recommended as clinical diagnostic tests. (v) In adult and pediatric patients with migraine, with no recent change in attack pattern, no history of seizures, and no other focal neurological symptoms or signs, the routine use of neuroimaging is not warranted. In patients with trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia, neuroimaging should be carefully considered and may necessitate additional scanning of intracranial/cervical vasculature and/or the sellar/orbital/(para)nasal region. In patients with atypical headache patterns, a history of seizures and/or focal neurological symptoms or signs, MRI may be indicated. (vi) If attacks can be fully accounted for by the standard headache classification (IHS), a PET or SPECT scan will normally be of no further diagnostic value. Nuclear medical examinations of the cerebral circulation and metabolism can be carried out in subgroups of patients with headache for the diagnosis and evaluation of complications, when patients experience unusually severe attacks or when the quality or severity of attacks has changed. (vii) Transcranial Doppler examination is not helpful in headache diagnosis.

Conclusion:  Although many of the examinations described in the present guidelines are of little or no value in the clinical setting, most of the tools, including thermal pain thresholds and transcranial magnetic stimulation, have considerable potential for differential diagnostic evaluation as well as for the further exploration of headache pathophysiology and the effects of pharmacological treatment.