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Harry Potter's headache finally diagnosed

Researchers have finally figured out why Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) had all those headaches. And, yes, the lightning bolt plays a role.

Patients often see multiple doctors before they get their headaches diagnosed – and Harry Potter, it turns out, is no exception.

Back in 2007 a leading headache specialist, after poring through Harry’s headache history, concluded that the boy’s intermittent stabbing head pain must be due to migraines. The specialist, Dr. Fred Sheftell, along with some colleagues described the diagnosis in a paper published in the journal Headache.

But the diagnosis didn’t completely fit Harry’s symptoms and over the years several other specialists have chimed in with their own expert opinions.

Now, with clues that came from the final chapter of Harry’s biography by J.K. Rowling, experts think they finally have the correct diagnosis - nummular headache. And they’ve described their reasoning in the most recent edition of Headache.

Many neurologists have never heard of nummular headaches, says the lead author, Dr. Matthew Robbins, an assistant professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the director of inpatient services at the Montefiore Headache Center.

And that’s partly because these kinds of headaches have only recently been identified and codified, he explained.

The telling symptom pointing to nummular headaches, Robbins says, is that every time Harry suffers from head pain it’s in a small spot in exactly the same place.

Another line of evidence: nummular headaches can be sparked by a head injury, like the one that led to Harry’s lightning bolt scar.

Robbins and his colleagues studied nummular headaches in dozens of real patients.  A telling sign is the lesions that “have been described to occur in scalp regions of [nummular headache] patients, although admittedly, none of these cutaneous lesions manifested in the shape of a lightning bolt,” the researchers explained in their article.

You may be wondering why experts spend their time diagnosing fictional characters.  It’s a good way to educate the public about a condition that can occur in children and often goes unrecognized, Robbins says.

“If you can get the word out to people who are suffering, it’s a positive thing,” Robbins says, adding, “and we had some fun along the way.”

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