Headache refers to pain in the head or upper neck. It’s one of the most common forms of chronic pain (second only to back pain). Anyone who’s suffered the debilitating pain of a headache – especially a migraine – knows how it interferes with daily routines.
Headaches may occur on either one or both sides of the skull, be isolated to a specific location, radiate across the head from one region, or have a viselike quality. A headache may appear as a dull ache, sharp pain, or a throbbing sensation. It can develop gradually or strike suddenly. The pain may last briefly, for an hour or less, or it may be for a prolonged period up to several days. Ranging from merely uncomfortable to downright worryingly disruptive, the headaches can disrupt your quality of life.
Classification of Headaches
Several types of headaches exist, with tension headaches being the most common. Each type of headache has unique sets of triggers, symptoms, location, intensity, duration, and treatment options. Most types of headaches are short-lived and rarely a cause for concern. Nevertheless, being able to recognize which kind of headache you are experiencing can inform how to treat it best and whether to see a doctor.
Head pain can be classified as primary or secondary headaches.
A primary headache occurs when the pain in your head is the condition. In other words, the headache is not triggered by an underlying medical condition.
The most common forms of primary headache are tension headache as well as migraine. Rare types of primary headaches include cluster headache, primary cough headache, primary stabbing headache, primary exertional headache, trigeminal neuralgia, hemicrania continua, and hypnic headache.
Primary headaches are typically triggered by hyperactivity of, or problems with, the pain-sensitive blood vessels, nerves, and muscles in the head or neck. They may also be due to changes in chemical activity in the brain.
Secondary headaches are due to an underlying problem in the head or neck. Examples of secondary headaches that are not harmful include cervicogenic headache (pain arising from the neck muscles) and medication-overuse headache (rebound headache).
Some of the causes of a secondary headache may be potentially life-threatening. Examples of underlying causes include meningitis, intracranial hemorrhage, subarachnoid hemorrhage, brain tumor, and temporal arteritis.
Location of headache pain
Identifying the location of the pain can be vital in helping you work out why you are having headaches.
|Area of headache pain||Common cause||Less common cause|
|Pain on ONE side of the head||Migraine||Hemicrania continua (rare)|
|Cluster headache||Aneurysm (rare)|
|Pain in BACK of the head or neck||Tension headache||Occipital neuralgia|
|Cluster headache||Low-pressure headache|
|Pain in the FRONTAL LOBE||Tension Headache||Ice-pick headache|
|Hangover headache||Barometric pressure headache|
|Sinus or allergy headache|
|Giant cell arteritis|
|Pain BEHIND ONE EYE||Cluster headache||Occipital neuralgia|
|Caffeine-related headache||Eye infection|
|Pain BEHIND THE EAR||Ear infection (more common in children)||Occipital neuralgia|
|Pain ALL OVER the head||Tension headache||Migraine|
Tension headaches are by far the most type of headache. It is characterized by the bilateral tightening of muscles around the forehead. The pain may feel like a band wrapping over the head and above the eyes.
Women are more susceptible to tension headache compared to men.
Symptoms of tension headaches
Tension headaches cause a dull ache or a squeezing pain on the sides and back of your head. The pain may also be felt in the neck, forehead, shoulders, and behind the eyes. While they usually affect both sides of the head, they can also be unilateral or occurring on only one side.
Typical symptoms include:
- Tightening sensation around the back or front of the head
- Constant, dull ache on both sides of your head
- A sense of pressure behind the eyes
- Tenderness of the face, head, neck, and shoulder
- The head feels like it is in a vice
- Pain that spread to or from the neck
- Pain that feels worse at the end of the day
- Sensitivity to light and sound
Common triggers for tension headaches
A variety of stressors, foods, and activities can cause tension headaches. Some people develop tension headaches after driving for long periods, or after staring at a computer screen for a long time, or prolonged manual labor. Emotional stress, anxiety, depression, or lack of sleep may also trigger tension headaches.
Episodic tension headaches
Episodic tension headache is also called stress headache because it comes on when you’re stressed, anxious, depressed, tired, angry, or hungry. It starts gradually, often in the middle of the day and may last for several hours. It happens less than 15 days per month.
Chronic tension headaches
Chronic tension headaches refer to tension headaches that happen more than 15 times for at least three months. The pain is almost always present, though it may vary over a day. You can feel a little queasy when you have one.
Migraines are severe, recurring, and throbbing pain on one side of the pain. It can last from a few hours to three days.
Migraine often starts during childhood and become more frequent with age. In adulthood, the migraines may occur several times a week, especially in middle-aged females.
Common symptoms of migraine
Migraine feels like an intense, throbbing, pulsing pain often only on one side of the head. The pain may then move around the temple to the back of the head. Migraines can be accompanied or preceded by a sensory warning. While migraine symptoms vary between individuals, a typical site for migraine to start is in your temples. The pulsating pain spread to both temples but often limits to one side of your head.
Aside from head pain, other symptoms include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Visual disturbance, blurred vision, seeing flashing lights or zigzag lines
- Heightened sensitivity to light, noise, and smell
- Pain behind the eye
- Loss of appetite
- Pain worsens with physical exertion
- Muscle tenderness and sensitive skin
An “aura” might precede a migraine, during which you experience flashing lights or other visual disturbances.
Migraine symptoms are considered worse than regular headaches because the pain can persist for hours to several days at a time. Migraine pain can affect your quality of life.
Migraines are typically triggered by the same factors each time. Types of migraine triggers include:
- Depression, anxiety, and stress
- Flashing and bright lights, strong smells, loud noises
- Lack of food or skipping meals
- Inadequate sleep or sleep disruption or sleeping too much
- Certain food types, such as cheese, chocolate, red wine, soy sauce, alcohol and caffeine
- Hormonal changes
- Contraceptive pills
Recognize the patterns to avoid a migraine. If you are unsure what triggers your migraine, you should keep a migraine diary. Act on the warning signs to prevent a full-blown migraine attack.
Migraine with aura
Up to 30% of people with migraine experience auras before the onset of head pain. These visual and sensory disturbances typically last between 5 and 60 minutes. Symptoms can last up to 72 hours if untreated.
Aura can have positive or negative symptoms. Positive symptoms are due to the activation of the central nervous system. Examples of positive signs include vision disturbances like zigzag vision or flickering lights, a blind spot in one eye, auditory problems like tinnitus or noises, somatosensory symptoms such as burning or pain, tingling sensation, and motor abnormalities like repetitive movements or jerking. Negative symptoms are manifested as a loss-of-function, which includes partial loss of hearing, loss of vision, or paralysis.
For patients who experience an aura for the first time, the symptoms can be frightening and can mimic the symptoms of a stroke.
Migraine without aura
More commonly, you will experience a migraine without any sensory disturbance leading up to the attack. Between 70 to 90 percent of migraines occur without an aura. The key differentiator between this type of migraine and the other types is that it lacks the warning phases (prodrome and aura) that different types of migraine have.
Retinal migraine (ocular migraine)
Retinal migraine causes temporary loss of vision in one eye, which can persist from minutes to months. You may also experience flashing lights, aura, blind spots, or other visual disturbances. The visual impairment should last for less than an hour, along with or after a migraine. It is most common in women during their childbearing years.
Retinal migraine is often a sign of a severe underlying medical problem, and you should seek medical care. If you experience these symptoms regularly, you might have a primary retinal disorder.
Hemiplegic migraine feels like a stroke. People who experience hemiplegic migraine develop temporary weakness on one side the body for less than 72 hours. Other symptoms include “pins and needles” sensation or a loss of sensation. Aura symptoms may also be present.
Episodic migraine is unilateral, meaning the symptoms are felt on one side of the head. Symptoms of episodic migraine include pulsing discomfort of moderate-to-severity intensity, which may worsen after physical activity. You may also experience nausea and vomiting, as well as photophobia and phonophobia (sensitivity to light and sound).
Chronic migraine typically occurs in people with a history of episodic migraines. You’re probably suffering from chronic migraine if you have a headache more than 15 days a month.
Chronic migraines tend to:
- Pain in one side or both sides of the head
- Pulsating, throbbing sensation
- Cause moderate to severe pain
The severity of the symptoms may vary on any given day.
Cluster headaches are rare but extremely debilitating. They derive their names from the “cluster periods” (or cyclical patterns) in which they occur. It usually occurs as a series of three or four short clusters of painful headaches followed by headache-free remission periods that can last for months or years. Each cluster can last as short as 15 minutes to over an hour.
When cluster headache strikes, you may feel severe pain on one side of your head. They occur at the same time of the day, often waking you up in the middle of the night.
Symptoms of cluster headaches
Cluster headache is described as a searing or piercing sensation in the back of the head or behind one eye. The pain can be so intense that you probably won’t be able to sit still during an attack.
- Pain behind one eye, one temple, or one side of the forehead
- Pain becomes most intense after 5-10 minutes and lasts between 30-60 minutes
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Sharp, penetrating, burning pain
- Restlessness or agitation
- Excessive tearing
- Drooping eyelid
- Sensitivity to light and sound
- A watering or swollen eye
If you think you might be suffering from a cluster headache for the first time, you should seek medical attention immediately.
Causes of cluster headache
Cluster headaches are more common during the spring and fall.
Cluster headaches also:
- Tend to run in families
- Changes in sleep patterns trigger may
- Could be triggered by medications
Smoking, alcohol, and some foods (e.g., chocolate, smoked meats) are potential causes for cluster headache.
New Daily Persistent Headache
New daily persistent headache refers to headaches that come on suddenly, usually in people without a prior history of headache. They may start suddenly and persist for three months or more.
Common symptoms include:
- Pain on both sides of the head
- Pain that feels like pressing or tightening
- Causing mild to moderate pain
- Might have features of chronic migraine or chronic tension-type headache
A hypnic headache is a rare type of headache that is also known as “alarm clock” headaches because they tend to wake people up during the night. The symptoms include mild-to-moderate throbbing pain usually felt on both sides of the head. It can last for up to 4 hours, and other symptoms may consist of mild-to-moderate throbbing pain often felt on both sides of the head. It can last for up to 4 hours, and other symptoms may include nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. You may experience several attacks per week.
The causes and triggers of hypnic headaches are unknown. This condition usually begins for the first time in a person’s 50s but can start sooner.
The best treatment option is caffeine, taken as tablets or cups of coffee before bedtime. Other treatment options include indomethacin, melatonin, and lithium.
Ice Pick Headaches
Ice pick headaches refer to brief stabs of pain around the front or sides of the head. These sudden, stabbing, intense headaches usually only last a few seconds. They can strike any time without warning, whether during sleeping or waking hours. They’re often described as feeling like getting stabbed with an ice pick.
The head pain occurs on the temple, orbit, and parietal area of your head. That’s the location of the trigeminal nerve, which is the facial nerve responsible for biting and chewing, as well as facial sensation. The nerve is on the side of your head slightly past your eye and above your ear. If you get a sharp pain in this area, chances are you’re getting ice pick headaches.
- Acute stabbing head pain that typically lasts for 5 to 10 seconds
- Moderate-to-severe head pain
- Sudden stabbing pain that occurs once or many times in waves over several hours
- Pain is generally felt on the top, sides, or front of the head
- Stabs may occur in multiple areas of the head, one at a time
- Head pain may move from one area to another on either the same or opposite side of the head
Despite their severity, ice pick headaches aren’t life-threatening. They don’t require medical intervention unless they occur frequently or interfere with your daily life.
Thunderclap headaches are sudden, severe headaches that reach maximum intensity in less than one minute and persists for more than five minutes. It strikes suddenly out of nowhere and peaks quickly. People often describe it as the “worst headache of their life.”
A thunderclap headache is usually secondary to life-threatening conditions such as meningitis, aneurysm, intracerebral hemorrhage, cerebral venous thrombosis, pituitary apoplexy, and reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome.
Hemicrania continua is a chronic headache that almost always affects the same side of your face. This type of headache is severe and constant.
Symptoms tend to:
- Affect only one side of the head
- Cause moderate pain with spikes of extreme pain
- Can become acute with the development of migraine-like symptoms
Trigeminal neuralgia is a chronic headache that affects the trigeminal nerve, which carries sensation from your face to your brain.
The slightest stimulation on the trigeminal nerve may trigger a sudden jolt of severe pain in your face and head. Symptoms include sudden, infrequent burning, or shock-like facial pain that can persist from a few seconds to two minutes. The episodes of attacks can occur in quick succession for up to two hours. The pain usually affects only one side at a time.
Occipital neuralgia occurs when pressure or irritation of the occipital nerves cause shooting, stabbing, or tingling pain. The pain usually starts at the base of the skull near the nape of the neck and spread towards the area behind the eyes and around one side of the head. You may feel increased pain when moving your neck. The pain lasts between a few seconds to minutes.
The symptoms of occipital neuralgia are often confused with that of migraine, cluster headache, and trigeminal neuralgia.
Cervicogenic headache refers to pain in the neck, though the pain is usually felt in the head. It may result from a stiff neck, herniated cervical (neck) disc, or a pinched cervical nerve. Neck pain and headache might be presented as a dull nagging, persistent pain in the back of your skull, temple, or behind one eye. It may feel like someone is stabbing you. You may also experience severe cluster-like headaches or tension headaches.
Other symptoms of a cervicogenic headache include:
- Pain and stiffness in the neck
- Shoulder pain due to a pinched shoulder nerve
- Weakness in an arm due to neck pain or inflammation
- A tingling sensation that radiates across the should blade and down an arm
- “Pins and needles” sensation at the base of your skull
- Pressure on top of your head when you’re lying down.
Symptoms of cervicogenic headaches may worsen with specific movements or when you touch your neck. The range of motion in your neck may be limited.
Medication-overuse headache, or rebound headache, occurs when you take pain medications for more than two days a week. This is the most common cause of secondary headache, and it affects up to five percent of the population.
The main symptoms include:
- Persistent or daily headaches similar to those of either tension headaches or migraines
- Worse pain when waking up
Some of the pain medications that may cause medication-overuse headaches are:
- NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and aspirin
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- A combination of aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine (Excedrin)
- Prescription pain medication such as tramadol (Ultram), oxycodone (Oxycontin), and hydrocodone (Vicodin)
- Triptans, such as zolmitriptan (Zomig) and sumatriptan (Imitrex)
- Ergotamine derivatives, such as Cafergot
Headaches caused by medication overuse tend to worsen upon waking up. It may interfere with your sleep patterns, resulting in disrupted sleep and early morning headaches.
To prevent medication-overuse headaches, avoid taking pain medication for more than twice a week, especially if you are prone to episodic headache disorder.
Caffeine narrows the blood vessels in the brain, thereby slowing blood flow. Without caffeine, on the other hand, the blood vessels widen.
Having too much caffeine can give you a headache, as can quitting caffeine “cold turkey.” Nevertheless, small doses of caffeine can provide migraine relief. The critical determining factor is the quantity of caffeine consumed. Keep your caffeine intake at a reasonable, steady level. Reduce caffeine gradually by 25% each week instead of quitting cold turkey so that you can avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Cough headaches are an uncommon type of headache that is triggered by coughing. It is thought to be caused by sudden pressure within the abdomen and chest. This type of headache usually happens during a cough or immediately afterward.
Coughing headaches are typically felt on both sides of the head, especially towards the back of the head. It’s often described as sharp or stabbing. How long it lasts is variable, but it’s typically short, lasting from a second to a couple of minutes.
Primary cough headaches
Primary cough headaches are usually harmless, occur in limited episodes, and eventually improve on their own. It is a rare type of headache disorder that typically affects adults over the age of 40. Aside from head pain, some people with a primary cough headache also experience dizziness, nausea, or sleep disturbance.
Secondary cough headaches
Secondary cough headaches are more serious, as structural abnormalities cause them within the brain, cerebral aneurysm, brain tumor, or a spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak.
It may initially fell the same as primary cough headaches, but you may also experience longer-lasting headaches, dizziness, unsteadiness, and fainting.
Sinus or allergy Headaches
Sinus headaches are caused by sinusitis (swelling of the sinuses). It is usually the result of an allergy or an infection. When the sinuses are swollen, their openings into the nasal passages become obstructed, stopping normal drainage, and thereby causing pressure to build up.
This type of headache may cause frontal head pain, whereby the pain or pressure is localized around your sinus area, behind the eyes, the cheeks, and the forehead. Sinus pain can range from dull to intense; it may worsen with sudden movement or straining and may spread to the teeth and jaw. The pain usually begins in the morning and become less severe after you move from lying flat to sitting or standing in an upright position. Other symptoms may include blocked nose, stopped-up ears, fever, nausea, and light or sound sensitivity.
Sinus headaches are characterized by:
- Dull, throbbing pain in the forehead or cheeks
- Pain localized over the sinus area, perhaps causing facial pain rather than a headache
- Facial tenderness or swelling
- A blocked or runny nose
- Green or yellow discharge from the nose
- Head movements may aggravate pain
Sinus headache vs. migraine
Sinus headaches can cause excruciating pain that is often mistaken for migraines. A real sinus headache results in nasal discharge that is yellow or green, unlike the clear discharge in migraines. If there is no nasal discharge, a headache of this nature is more likely to be a migraine.
Common allergies that cause headaches
Sinus or allergy headaches are usually caused by a cold, sinusitis, or other bacteria or viruses. Allergies that might trigger headaches, allergic rhinitis (hay fever), and food allergies.
Barometric Pressure Headaches
If it seems like your headache occurs during or after changes in whether you may be susceptible to barometric pressure headache. Weather changes correspond with a fluctuation in barometric pressure, which is the pressure that the surrounding air exerts on the body. At least a third of people with migraines will experience barometric pressure headaches when the weather pattern changes.
Symptoms of barometric pressure headaches
Symptoms of barometric pressure headaches include:
- Continual frontal head pain that persists between 4 hours to three days
- Sensitivity to light, sounds, and smells
- Distorted vision
- Nausea, abdominal pain, and vomiting
- Numbness in the face and neck
- Pressure or tightness anywhere in the face or neck region
- Mood or emotional changes, often depressed or anxious
- Difficulty concentrating or sleeping
- Increased need to urinate
- Frequent yawning
- Slurred speech or thick tongue
- Memory fog
- Food craving
Causes of barometric pressure change
Weather and atmospheric changes associated with headaches include:
- Sudden changes in temperature or humidity
- Strong wind systems
- Storm systems
- Changes in altitude
Giant Cell Arteritis (temporal arteritis)
Giant cell arteritis, also known as temporal arteritis, is relatively uncommon. Nonetheless, the condition is severe and can cause permanent vision loss.
This condition is caused by inflammation or damage of blood vessels – including the temporal arteries along the side of the head. When the temporal arteries become inflamed, they restrict blood flow and can cause permanent damage to your eyesight.
Giant cell arteritis may feel like a migraine initially, as it starts with throbbing in the temple on one side of your head. But unlike a migraine, giant cell arteritis makes your temples tender to the touch. And the throbbing may be constant.
- Sudden pain in the temples, top of the head, behind the eyes, or jaw
- A sore or tender scalp
- Visual disturbances
- Low fever
- Muscle tenderness
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
The symptoms tend to come on instantly, with little or no warning before the pain began.
Because it can lead to permanent vision loss, you should seek medical attention immediately.
Exertional headache, also known as exercise-induced headaches, are brought on quickly after strenuous physical activity.
It can be triggered by:
- Weight lifting
- Sexual intercourse
- Bouts of coughing or sneezing
These physical activities increase blood flow to your skull, which can lead to a throbbing headache on both sides of the head. The headache usually develops at the peak of physical activity and subsides when the exercise stops. These headaches are usually isolated events, and may also produce migraine-like symptoms.
You can prevent them by:
- Taking pain relief medication before exercise
- Avoiding strenuous activity
- Warming up properly
- Drinking enough fluids
- Eating nutritious foods
- Getting adequate sleep
Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMD)
Pain in the temple or jaw may be due to temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD). A TMD headache might occur when the temporomandibular joint in your jaw tense up – like when you grind your teeth – and the pain spreads to the other temporomandibular joints along the cheeks and on the sides and top of the head, causing a headache. TMJ headache might also result from temporomandibular joint issues related to osteoarthritis, joint hypermobility, or osteoporosis.
Common symptoms include:
- Pain in the temples
- Pain in any part of the head that involves chewing, such as the jaw or neck
- Clicking or popping sounds in the jaw
- Tight facial or jaw muscles
- A jaw or facial pain
- A “clicking” noise in the jaw
- Restricted movement of the jaw
- Changes in your bite (that is, the way your top and bottom teeth fit together)
TMD pain may easily be mistaken from a tension headache because the symptoms are similar. A few different signs set TMD apart from tension headaches: a crackling or grinding sound when you move your jaw, stiffness in the tender joints, and pain in the face, and earaches.
Idiopathic intracranial hypertension (pseudotumor cerebri)
Idiopathic intracranial hypertension is also known as pseudotumor cerebri. It is a condition whereby cerebrospinal fluid leaks, causing pressure to build up around the brain. The pressure causes headaches that are usually felt at the back of the head.
The head pain is worse at night or upon waking up. You may also experience visual disturbances, such as blurred or double vision. Other symptoms may include:
- Persistent ringing in the ears
- Nausea and vomiting
If left untreated, idiopathic intracranial hypertension may lead to blindness.
Women commonly experience migraine headaches that are linked to estrogen hormone fluctuations. You may experience headache during pregnancy, menstruation, menopause, or when you take birth control pills.
Also known as spontaneous intracranial hypotension, low-pressure headache happens when there’s a spinal fluid leak in your neck or back. Symptoms include intense pain in the back of your head and neck that worsens when you stand or sit. It gets better after you lie down for 20 minutes.
Dangerously high blood pressure can trigger a hypertension headache. The head pain will usually occur on both sides of the head and typically worsen with activity. You may also experience a pulsating sensation, changes in vision, tingling or numbness, nosebleed, chest pain, or shortness of breath.
Seek immediate medical attention if you think you’re experiencing a hypertension headache. The head pain should dissipate soon after your blood pressure is under control.
Eyestrain may cause frontal lobe headache. They typically result from uncorrected vision or astigmatism in one or both eyes.
Other causes of eyestrain headache include:
- Extended periods of concentration
- Prolonged visual tasks, such as using a computer or reading
- Poor posture
People with eyestrain should see an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) for an eye test. If defective eyesight is the cause of your headache, you may require glasses or contact lenses.
Consuming too much alcohol can trigger a throbbing headache several hours later. These migraine-like headaches are typically felt on both sides of the head and are worsen with movement. You may also experience sensitivity to light as well as nausea. Symptoms of hangover headaches tend to dissipate within 72 hours.
You can reduce the risk of a hangover by:
- Drinking alcohol in moderation
- Not drinking alcohol on an empty stomach
- Drinking water between alcoholic beverages and before sleeping
When to see your doctor
As headaches may be a symptom of a severe underlying condition, you should seek medical attention if to head pain becomes more frequent or persistent.
Seek medical advice if you experience:
- Severe headache that comes on suddenly
- Double vision
- Change in headache pattern
- Headaches that come on after the age of 50 that gets progressively worse
- Headache that doesn’t improve with rest and medication
- Loss of consciousness
- Shortness of breath
- Confusion or memory loss
- Head injury
- Increased pain during movement or coughing
- Painful red eyes
- Neck stiffness
- Personality or cognitive changes
- Sleep disturbances
- Slurred speech
- Weakness or numbness
- Muscle weakness or paralysis
Your doctor may recommend ways to manage pain and prevent future headaches.
Your doctor will conduct a physical exam and ask about your medical history and any symptoms you may be experiencing. The doctor will usually be able to diagnose a particular type of headache via a description of the condition, the kind of pain, and the duration and pattern of attacks.
If the nature of the headache is complicated or severe, diagnostic tests may be carried out to eliminate more serious causes.
An MRI scan uses radio waves and a powerful magnetic field to produce detailed images of the brain and blood vessels around it. It can help diagnose stroke, tumors, bleeding in the brain, structural abnormalities, and infections.
A CT scan uses a series of X-ray to construct detailed cross-sectional images of the brain. This helps doctors diagnose stroke, tumors, bleeding in the brain, brain damage, and other possible underlying medical conditions.
Blood tests may be used to look for electrolyte imbalance, infections of the spinal cord or brain, toxins, or blood vessel problems.
Cerebrospinal fluid can be obtained by inserting a needle into the spine in the lower back. Examination of the fluid can measure the pressure within the space and diagnose infection or brain hemorrhage.
Treatment depends on the underlying cause, frequency, and severity of your headaches, as well a show debilitating your headaches are. Medications used to relieve headache pain works best when taken at the first sign of an oncoming headache – as soon as signs and symptoms of a headache begin.
Most types of headaches can be treated with simple OTC painkillers and will dissipate within a few hours. These pain reliever medications are typically taken once every four to six hours until the pain subsides. The dosage depends on the type and strength of the pain reliever. It is essential to follow the doctor’s advise because overusing pain relief medication can lead to medication-overuse headaches.
For severe chronic headaches, the doctor may prescribe muscle relaxants or antidepressants, depending on your condition. Prescription-strength pain relievers may also help relieve severe headache.
If you have more than one type of headache, several different medications may be prescribed.
Complementary therapies may be used as well, possibly in combination with medications. Consult your doctor before embarking on an alternative treatment.
Biofeedback uses monitoring devices to teach you how to control body functions such as muscle tension, blood pressure, and heart rate. This is a non-invasive relaxation technique that teaches you to manage pain and stress.
Acupuncture involves inserting tiny hair-thin needles into specific trigger points on the body to reduce stress and tension. Acupuncture may prevent migraine and tension headaches or reduce their frequency. While the results are inconclusive, some studies have suggested that acupuncture may help reduce the frequency and intensity of chronic headaches (1).
Acupressure massage may help with easing muscle tension and reduce headache pain. A study found that one month of acupressure treatment is a more effective remedy for chronic headaches as compared to muscle relaxants (2).
You can try acupressure at home. Try applying firm pressure on the acupoint between the base of your thumb and your index finger – this pressure point is connected to headaches. Make sure you repeat it on the opposite hand.
Chiropractic care and spinal manipulation
Studies suggest that chiropractic manipulation and spinal manipulation reduces migraine and tension headaches (3).
Cognitive-behavioral therapy may help you comprehend the psychological effects of your headache. It teaches you how behaviors and thoughts affect the way you perceive pain, including headache pain. You may receive cognitive-behavioral therapy either alone or in a group.
Quick Ways to Relieve a Headache
Take time out to care for yourself. Most headaches can be relieved quickly without medication.
People with migraines, in particular, tend to benefit from cold compress.
People with tension headache, in particular, tend to benefit from warm compress. The heat brings relief by relaxing the tight muscles around the head and neck.
Essential oils may relieve headache pain, especially in the case of tension headaches. Dilute in a carrier oil such as olive oil, coconut oil, or sweet almond oil before application.
Peppermint oil is commonly used essential oils for relieving tension headaches and migraines. It contains menthol, which helps ease headache pain and relax tensed muscles. A 2016 study claims that topical application of peppermint oil may relieve tension headaches as effectively as acetaminophen (4). Apply diluted peppermint oil directly to the temples and forehead.
Rosemary oil has potent anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-killing) properties. It is traditionally used in folk medicine to treat headaches, improve blood circulation, relax muscles, insomnia, and reduce stress. Massage the affected area with diluted rosemary oil for relief.
Lavender oil is commonly used to relieve tension headaches and migraines that are triggered by stress. You can apply diluted lavender oil topically to the upper lip or use an essential oil diffuser.
Massage the tight muscles in the temples, jaws, neck, or shoulders to relieve muscle tension. You can also massage the area between the eyebrows and the two spots at the base of the eyebrows. This helps increase blood circulation to the affected area and relieve pain naturally.
Go to a relaxing place
Go to a calm environment, away from the bright lights or loud noises that may cause your headache. Take a break from the screen. Meditate and breathe deeply. Dim the lights.
Sit in a dark, quiet room with your eyes closed and relax.
Ginger. Ginger root contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. A study in 100 patients with chronic migraine found that 250 mg of ginger powder is as effective as sumatriptan at reducing migraine pain (5). Furthermore, ginger helps reduce nausea and vomiting, which are common symptoms associated with severe headaches. You can take the ginger powder in capsule form or make a potent herbal tea with fresh ginger root.
Magnesium. Magnesium deficiency is common in people who experience cluster headaches and migraines. Take 200-600 mg of magnesium supplements per day to reduce the headache frequency.
Vitamin B complex. Some vitamin Bs may help protect against headaches or reduce their frequency. Vitamin B complex supplementation is a safe way to treat headache symptoms naturally.
Prevention and Lifestyle Modification
If your doctor is unable to determine the underlying cause, you will be prescribed preventive medicine or lifestyle modification for your headache pain. Strategies depend on the type of headache you have and whether medication overuse is contributing to your headaches.
Keep a headache diary
Keep a headache diary to help identify the triggers. Write down details about the headaches, such as when it started, what you were doing at the time, the pain intensity, and how long it lasted. This can help identify the patterns that precede a headache, as well as the factors that trigger it. Once these contributing factors are identified, lifestyle modifications can lessen their impact.
Avoid medication overuse
Avoid using painkillers to treat your headache pain for more than 15 days a month because it could lead to a medication-overuse headache. Consult your doctor regarding how to wean yourself off the medication because there can be severe withdrawal effects if done improperly.
Get adequate sleep
Too much or too little sleep may trigger a headache in some people. Hence, it’s essential to get enough sleep without going overboard. For maximum benefits, aim for six to eight hours of sleep per night. Speak to your doctor if you have sleep disorders, such as insomnia or sleep apnea.
Stress is a common cause of chronic headaches.
Get organized. Simplify your schedule. Plan ahead. Stay positive. Take frequent breaks to rest your eyes and stretch. Relax.
Regular physical activity can improve your fitness and reduce stress. With your doctor’s permission, choose any aerobic exercise that you enjoy – such as swimming or cycling. Warm-up slowly, however, because sudden exercise can cause headaches.
Improve your posture so that you are not straining your head, neck, and shoulder muscles. Sit up straight and ensure the lower back is adequately supported. Do not sit in the same position for too long. Stretch and take regular breaks from your workstation.
Eat and drink
Eat regular meals, especially if you have hypertension-induced headaches. Also, drink more water to prevent headaches.
Avoid trigger foods
Avoid foods that trigger headaches, including nitrates, histamines, and MSG. If a headache rears its ugly head after meals, it may be helpful to keep a food diary to identify and avoid any foods that may trigger a headache. Try an elimination diet that eliminates the foods most related to your headache symptoms.
Avoid nitrates or nitrites. Foods containing nitrates or nitrites have been shown to trigger headaches in some people, possibly by causing the expansion of blood vessels. Nitrates and nitrites are commonly used to preserve processed meats like sausages and bacon to keep them fresh. To minimize your exposure, limit the number of processed meats in your diet, and choose nitrate- and nitrite-free foods whenever possible.
Avoid foods high in histamine. Some people are unable to excrete histamine properly; the resulting accumulation of histamine in these people might trigger headaches. Cutting histamine-rich foods from the diet may prevent headaches. Histamine is found in certain foods like aged cheeses, fermented food, beer, wine, smoked fish, and cured meats.
Avoid inflammatory foods. Anti-inflammatory foods will reduce inflammation in your brain and improve blood circulation. Examples include celery, beets, blueberries, and flaxseeds.
Moderate caffeine intake
Drinking a few sips of caffeinated beverages such as coffee, tea, or soda, may sometimes help ease a headache. However, be mindful of how your caffeine intake. Too much caffeine can trigger headache, as can quitting abruptly.
Limit alcohol intake
A headache is one of the most common side effects of a hangover. This may be because alcohol is a diuretic, making the body excrete more water via the urine.
The Bottom Line
Headache can be a painful annoyance. In some cases, they can be debilitating. The location and type of headache can tell you a lot about its possible causes and how to treat it.
Most headache symptoms will resolve within minutes to hours and can be eased with pain medications, lifestyle changes, and home remedies. See a doctor if the headaches are severe, chronic, or worsening.