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Headaches: Managing a Headache

Introduction

You can reduce how many headaches you get and how bad they are when you do get them. Try to:

  • Find and avoid triggers that cause your headaches.
  • Carry your medicine with you so you can treat a headache right away when you feel one starting. This is especially important if you get migraines.
  • Don't take over-the-counter pain relievers more than 3 times a week, because you may get rebound headaches. These headaches usually occur after pain medicine has worn off. This prompts you to take another dose. After a while, you get a headache whenever you stop taking the medicine.
  • Take drugs that cause the fewest side effects, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (for example, aspirin and ibuprofen).
  • Exercise regularly, eat well, and reduce stress.
  • Work with your doctor to find the best treatment for your headaches.
 

Taking medicines and reducing stress can help you treat and prevent migraines and tension headaches.

  • Reducing stress may be all you need to stop or prevent a mild tension headache. But you may need to take medicine if your symptoms get worse.
  • You may need to try several medicines and ways of reducing stress to find the best treatment for you.
  • Medicines to stop a headache include pain relievers (prescription, over-the-counter, or both).
  • Medicines to prevent a headache include antidepressants and seizure medicines. The type of medicines you take will depend on the type of headache you have and how bad your symptoms are.
  • A counselor or therapist can help you reduce stress. He or she also can help treat anxiety or depression if you have those health problems. Anxiety and depression can cause headaches.

Test Your Knowledge

When my tension headache begins, I may be able to keep symptoms from getting worse with stress relief. And if the headache does not get better, I can take medicines to better manage my symptoms.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Reducing stress may stop a tension headache when it is starting, especially if it is linked to stress or anxiety. Taking medicines can stop your headache if it gets worse.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Reducing stress may stop a tension headache when it is starting, especially if it is linked to stress or anxiety. Taking medicines can stop your headache if it gets worse.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

Early treatment may keep your headache from getting worse and may help you feel better sooner. This is especially true if you have migraine headaches. You will miss less work or school, and you may improve the quality of your life.

Test Your Knowledge

Treating my migraine right away can improve the quality of my life.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Treating your migraine as soon as it begins may help reduce symptoms. And it may keep your headache from getting worse or lasting longer. You will miss fewer daily activities and improve the quality of your life.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Treating your migraine as soon as it begins may help reduce symptoms. And it may keep your headache from getting worse or lasting longer. You will miss fewer daily activities and improve the quality of your life.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

Stopping headaches

You can try several things to stop a headache after it starts:

  • Stop what you are doing, and begin treatment. Don't wait for the headache to get worse.
  • Apply a cold, moist cloth or ice pack to your forehead and temples.
  • Rest in a quiet, comfortable, dark room.
  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Begin stress-relief methods as soon as your headache starts.
  • Have a massage to relax tense muscles in your head, neck, temples, face, or jaw.

Preventing headaches

You can do things every day to help prevent headaches:

  • Find and avoid your headache triggers by using a headache diary(What is a PDF document?).
  • Sit and stand with good posture to avoid muscle tension.
  • Live a healthy lifestyle. Get regular sleep, eat healthy foods at regular times, avoid alcohol and drugs, and avoid foods that may trigger your headaches.
  • Don't get too tired from hard physical activity.
  • Don't take over-the-counter pain relievers more than 3 times a week, because you may get rebound headaches.
  • Try to reduce stress and headache pain with one or more of these treatments:

Preventing migraines

Other treatments that may help prevent migraines include:4

  • Butterbur. This herb has been shown to help prevent migraines in some people.
  • Feverfew. This is an herb that—some small studies show—may help prevent migraines in some people.
  • Magnesium. Studies have found that some people with migraines have low levels of magnesium in the brain. Taking magnesium may help prevent migraines.
  • Riboflavin (vitamin B2). This vitamin may help prevent migraines.
  • Coenzyme Q10. This supplement worked to reduce the number of migraines some people had in a small study.

Test Your Knowledge

When I first have signs of a headache, I should try to ignore it because it might go away.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    You may be able to keep your headache from getting worse by starting stress-relief treatment right away. You also may want to take medicine right away. The longer you wait to treat your headache, the more likely it is to get worse.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    You may be able to keep your headache from getting worse by starting stress-relief treatment right away. You also may want to take medicine right away. The longer you wait to treat your headache, the more likely it is to get worse.

  •  

Lying down in a dark, quiet room with a cold cloth over my head may be all I need to do to manage a tension headache.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Lying down and placing a cold cloth or ice pack on your head or face may be all you need to reduce the pain from a tension headache. But if your doctor has prescribed drugs to stop a headache from getting worse (such as a triptan for migraines), you should always follow your doctor's instructions and take your medicine as soon as the headache begins.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Lying down and placing a cold cloth or ice pack on your head or face may be all you need to reduce the pain from a tension headache. But if your doctor has prescribed drugs to stop a headache from getting worse (such as a triptan for migraines), you should always follow your doctor's instructions and take your medicine as soon as the headache begins.

  •  

Continue to Where?

 

Now that you have read this information, you are ready to start managing your headaches.

Talk with your doctor

If you have questions about this information, print it out and take it with you when you visit your doctor. You may want to use a highlighter to mark areas or make notes in the margins of pages where you have questions.

Take your headache diary with you when you visit your doctor. Be sure to let him or her know if you have any change in your symptoms.

Talk with your doctor about the best way to manage your headaches.

Return to topic:

References

Citations

  1. Linde K, et al. (2009). Acupuncture for tension-type headache. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
  2. Linde K, et al. (2009). Acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
  3. Haghighi AB, et al. (2010). Cutaneous application of menthol 10% solution as an abortive treatment of migraine without aura: A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossed-over study. International Journal of Clinical Practice, 64(4): 451–456.
  4. Holland S, et al. (2012). Evidence-based guideline update: NSAIDs and other complementary treatments for episodic migraine prevention in adults: Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society. Neurology, 78(17): 1346–1353.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Andrew Swan, MD, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Last Revised June 14, 2013

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