Your head hurts. Again.
Headache is a common source of chronic pain in today’s society. From uncomfortable to downright unbearable, headaches can disrupt your day-to-day life. Anyone’s who suffered the splitting pain of a headache – especially a migraine – understands how difficult it can be to work, drive, and even carry a conversation while your head is pounding.
The first step to curb your headache is to determine what type of headache you have. One remedy may be more suitable than another to ease a specific kind of headache. Common types of headache include tension headache, migraine, cluster headache, and sinus headache. Take a close look at your headache symptoms to determine what kind of headache you’re having so that you can treat it accordingly.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment approach for your headache.
Pain relievers are typically the first-line drugs for headaches. Many of these pain medications are available over-the-counter (OTC), while others require a prescription.
These pain medications are safe when used as directed. However, you should use it sparingly. Frequent use of OTC medications may lead to “medication-overuse headaches” or “rebound headaches.” If you continually take large doses of OTC pain relievers to treat recurrent headaches, you should speak to a doctor.
If painkillers aren’t effective, your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant to stop muscle contractions. Your doctor may also prescribe an anti-depressant to stabilize your brain’s serotonin level and help you cope with stress.
Furthermore, different types of headaches can benefit from various medications:
- Tension headaches. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen, naproxen, acetaminophen, and aspirin usually help. But be careful not to take more than necessary.
- Triptans is the mainstay of migraine treatment. Aside from pain relief, triptans can also help with nausea, vomiting, as well as sensitivity to light and sound.
- Cluster headaches. Inhalation of high doses of pure oxygen can bring relief. Triptan shots might also help at the onset of a cluster headache.
Preventive treatment (for migraine)
Daily preventive medications can prevent migraine attacks from occurring by reducing the frequency and severity of migraine attacks. They are not meant for treating an acute migraine attack.
Types of preventive medications include:
- Blood pressure medications such as propranolol (Inderal) and verapamil (Calan SR, Isoptin SR)
- Anti-seizure drugs such as topiramate (Topamax)
- Calcitonin gene-related peptides (CGRP) inhibitors such as erenumab (Aimovig), fremanezumab (Ajovy), and galcanezumab-gnlm (Emgality)
- Muscle relaxants
- Relaxation and biofeedback strategies
Devices that can be used to prevent migraines include:
- Cefaly, a small headband device that sends electrical pulses through your forehead to stimulate a nerve linked with migraines.
- SpringTMS or eNeura sTMS which gives off a magnetic pulse that stimulates the brain.
- This hand-held device is also known as a noninvasive vagus nerve stimulator (nVS). When placed over the vagus nerve in your neck, it sends a mild electrical stimulation to the nerve’s fibers, thereby relieving pain.
Home remedies and alternative treatments may bring relief or prevent attacks.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps you challenge negative thoughts and attitudes towards stress. Those skills will help you mitigate the stress response triggered by tension-type and migraine headaches.
Biofeedback helps you to control the way your muscle respond to stress – i.e., it helps to ease the tension that is common in headaches.
Place the sensors on the affected muscles along the forehead, trapezius muscles in the shoulder, or the jawline. The sensor is fed into a portable machine that gives real-time feedback about muscle tension, allowing you to release the tight muscles.
Hypnosis, deep breathing, and visualization may help you deal with stress and also lower your perception of pain. This therapy is especially helpful for tension headaches.
Massaging specific pressure points may help relieve tension in the head by improving blood flow. Notable locations are in the neck, temples, and shoulders. Massage is particularly helpful for tension headaches.
You may also want to invest in a scalp massager device.
Acupuncture is an ancient oriental technique that involves inserting fine needles into the skin to stimulate the release of natural pain-relieving compounds in the body. It is an effective way to prevent migraines and tension headaches or reduce their frequency.
A study found that acupuncture is more effective and safer than prescription pain reliever topiramate in the treatment of migraines (1).
Chiropractic and osteopathy
A chiropractor or osteopath may be able to ease tension headache with spinal manipulation and realignment.
Botulinum toxin (Botox)
Best known as Botox, the FDA has approved it for the prevention of chronic migraine headaches in adults (2). If you have a migraine more than 15 per month, you can get Botox shots to your head and neck. Each session takes 10-15 minutes. After your first session, it may take 10-14 days for your symptoms to improve.
Doctors think Botox works for migraine because it blocks neurotransmitters that carry pain signals from your brain.
There are several home remedies that you can try to relieve headache symptoms. Some of these may work better with specific types of headache.
Many common lifestyle modifications can help reduce your headache pain without any medications.
Drink plenty of water to prevent a dehydration-induced headache. Water can also relieve headache symptoms in dehydrated individuals.
Use essential oils
Lavender and peppermint essential oils are extremely helpful when you have a headache.
Inhaling lavender oil for 15 minutes can help reduce the severity of migraine headaches, as well as stress and anxiety.
Applying peppermint essential oil to the temples may reduce the symptoms of tension headaches.
Avoid strong smells
Strong odors, especially from perfumes, can cause some people to develop migraine headaches. The hypersensitivity to odor is called osmophobia – a common condition in those with chronic migraines.
If you are hypersensitive to strong odor, avoid perfumes, strongly-scented foods, and cigarette smoke to decrease your chance of migraine.
Take some magnesium
Magnesium is an essential mineral, lack of which, may trigger migraine or cluster headaches. Adding 600 mg of supplementary magnesium per day may help reduce or prevent headaches.
Try vitamin supplements
B vitamins are water-soluble micronutrients that facilitate neurotransmitter synthesis and therefore have a protective effect against headache. Examples include riboflavin (B2), pyridoxine (vitamin B-12), folate, and vitamin B-12. B-complex vitamins have all eight of the B vitamins and are a safe and cost-effective natural remedy for headache symptoms.
Vitamin E may also relieve menstrual migraines.
Consider taking coenzyme Q10
Try a herbal remedy
Certain herbs, including feverfew and butterbur, may relieve headache symptoms and frequency.
Feverfew is a flowering plant with anti-inflammatory properties. Some studies suggest that taking feverfew supplements in doses of 50-150 mg each day may reduce headache frequency (4). Contrastingly, other studies have failed to find a benefit.
Butterbur root comes from a perennial shrub and also has anti-inflammatory effects. A dose of 50-150 mg of butterbur per day is effective in lowering migraine frequency when taken for about three months, according to the American Migraine Foundation (5). However, an unpurified form of butterbur should be treated with caution, as it can cause liver damage.
Sip some ginger tea
Ginger tea may help ease migraines as effectively as conventional medication sumatriptan. What’s more, ginger reduces nausea and vomiting.
You can take the ginger powder in capsule form or make a potent tea with fresh ginger root.
Try an elimination diet
Eliminate foods that may trigger your headache symptoms.
Common food triggers for migraines include:
- processed foods
- red wine
- aged cheeses
- monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- caffeinated beverages
Keep a food journal of what you eat each day. This may enable you to identify and avoid any foods that could trigger a headache. Change your diet or eating patterns to prevent future migraine attacks.
Avoid foods high in histamine
Histamine may cause migraine in those who are sensitive to it or are unable to excrete histamine properly.
Cut histamine-rich foods from your diet to prevent headaches. Avoid foods such as aged cheese, fermented food, beer, wine, smoked fish, and cured meats.
Avoid nitrates and nitrites
Nitrates and nitrites are shown to trigger headaches in some people by causing the blood vessels to expand. To minimize your exposure, limit the processed meats in your diets, including items like hot dogs, sausage, and bacon.
Get some caffeine
Sipping on caffeinated beverages, such as coffee or tea, may provide headache relief. Caffeine constricts blood vessels, increases alertness, and improves mood, all of which can relieve headache symptoms. It could also help your body absorb pain medications faster.
Be careful, however; watch your caffeine intake. Too much caffeine can lead to withdrawal symptoms like fatigue and caffeine-withdrawal headaches.
Limit alcohol intake
Headache is a common side effect of hangover. This might be because alcohol is a diuretic and vasodilator. Avoid alcohol if you are prone to headaches.
Soothe the pain with a cold compress for migraine
Use a cold compress or ice pack on your forehead, scalp, or neck to soothe headache symptoms. It can decrease inflammation, slow down nerve conduction, and constrict blood vessels, all of which help temporarily reduce headache pain.
Be sure to limit each session to no more than 15 minutes. Take a 15-minute break before resuming.
Use a heating pad or hot compress for tension headaches
A warm shower or warm cloth might also do the trick.
Get some exercise
Engage in physical activity. During exercise, your body release endorphins that block pain signals to your brain. Exercise also promotes blood circulation, which reduces headache frequency and severity.
Choose a slow aerobic exercise that you enjoy. Start slowly – exercising too vigorously may trigger migraines.
Stress can create a vicious cycle whereby migraine pain exacerbates the stress, which then triggers another migraine episode.
Relieve stress by journaling, exercising, or meditating. You can also try progressive muscle relaxation techniques. By doing so, you are choosing to take control of your body’s reaction to stress when you are in the middle of a headache.
Get adequate sleep
Getting either too much or too little sleep may cause a headache. Make sure you get the right amount of sleep – not too much and not too little. Aim for a “sweet spot” of 7-9 hours of restful sleep per night.
Dim the lights
Get rest in a dark, quiet room. Close your eyes and relax.
If you are hypersensitive to bright or flickering light, pull down the shades or wear sunglasses when a migraine strikes. It can help speed up your recovery.
Ease pressure on your head
If your hair is tied up too tightly, or wear poorly-fitted swimming goggles, it could cause an external compression headache.
Keep a headache diary
A headache diary may help you determine the migraine triggers. Note when your migraines start, what you were doing at the time, how long they last, and what provides relief.
When to see a doctor
If headaches are disrupting your personal life and work, it’s time to see your doctor. Headaches can’t always be prevented, but your doctor can help you manage the symptoms.
Seek emergency care if you have:
- A severe, sudden headache
- Headache after a head trauma
- Stiff neck, seizure, confusion, double vision, difficulty speaking, or fever
- Pain that worsens despite treatment
These symptoms suggest a severe underlying condition, so it’s essential to get a prompt diagnosis.
The Bottom Line
Medications can ease headache pain but are not the only option. You should also change your lifestyle to control stress or avoid triggers.
Headache remedies may work for one person but not the other. So speak with your doctor to figure out the best solution for you.