Headaches can ruin just about anything, and as they are the most common medical complaint, they must wreak havoc unchecked. If you can’t think, you can’t work. I’m sure there are statistics compiled by some poor government agency concerning just how much productivity is lost to headaches each year, but you’re not here to discuss the GDP (which will cause an even larger headache), you’re here to learn how to get rid of headaches.
There are many different types of headaches but by far the most common are tension headaches, which make up around 90% of all cases. These headaches are characterized by a dull pressure or tightness, as if a vice or constricting band were wrapped around your head. The pain is often felt on top of the head, forehead, or back of the neck. Unlike migraines, tension headaches will often hurt on both sides of the head. Migraine sufferers typically experience an intense throbbing that is dominant on one side. Generally, any kind of physical activity will quickly worsen a migraine. A very small percentage of the population experiences cluster headaches, which are characterized by intense, piercing pain in and around one eye. Whichever type of headache you’re dealing with, you’ll find some answers here. While this article is by no means a substitute for a doctor’s visit, I’ve dealt with headaches for years and have striven to find the best research-based treatments, practical preventative strategies, and coping methods for this common-yet-frustrating affliction.
Common Headache Triggers
Emotional Headache Triggers: Stress, depression, anxiety
Physical Headache Triggers: poor posture, menstruation, birth control pills, eye strain, teeth grinding, sleep loss or irregular sleep, dehydration, warm weather, over exertion, sex (seriously), long periods of exertion followed by rest (weekend headaches), strong smells or scents (paint, dust, perfume, cleaning chemicals, flowers), tight-fitting hats, hair bands or hair styles, smoking
Dietary Headache Triggers: skipping meals, too much sugar, too much salt, caffeine overuse or withdrawal, chocolate, foods and beverages containing tyramine (aged cheese, red wine, pickled, smoked, salted or dried meats, all nuts), foods containing nitrates and nitrites (processed meats like hot dogs, bacon and pork products, salami, cold cuts), foods containing MSG and other food additive chemicals, miso and soy sauce, citrus fruits, individual food allergies
Obvious Headache Triggers: blunt force trauma to the head, unsolicited sexual advances from a horny spouse, Fox News, warm beer, the Chicago Cubs…etc.
Get Rid of Headaches
OTC pain relievers get rid of headaches, but overuse can worsen the problem. Tension headaches and mild migraines can usually be treated with OTC pain relievers. NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) are usually the first choice for headaches. If these fail, you may want to try a combination medication like Excedrin, which combines different NSAIDS with small amounts of caffeine. However, if you’re popping pills more than three times a week you may begin experiencing “rebound headaches” (also called medication overuse headaches), which can be more painful and frequent than the headaches you were originally suffering.
Use coping strategies to ease headache pain. A quiet dark room and some rest work for most people. The use of heating pads or ice packs (a cool rag will suffice) is recommended for both tension headaches and migraines. Gently massaging the painful areas and focused breathing can also help. Or, you might try a hot relaxing shower or warm bath. A headache veteran, I find a dark place, turn on a fan, and drink a small cup of coffee (natural painkiller) to get rid of a headache.
Get rid of headaches through stress management. Stress is widely believed to be the most common trigger of tension headaches and is also thought to play a role in migraines and many other headache types. For most people, time management – planning, creating schedules, and identifying priorities – reduces stress and anxiety. Relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, focused breathing, massage therapy, and biofeedback can also help reduce stress and tension. Setting aside time for relaxation, fun, and laughter is also important. But sometimes stress can become so ingrained in our way of living and thinking that outside help such as professional therapy (specifically cognitive behavioral therapy) may be needed.
Healthy living could mean fewer headaches. The American Headache Society urges sufferers to practice “headache hygiene”, which means living in a way that will reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches. Getting enough sleep and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule (even on weekends) is vitally important. Regular aerobic exercise – at least 40 minutes 3-4 days a week – is another part of headache hygiene. Lastly, you’ll need to eat regular meals and follow a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, protein and carbohydrates.
Identify and avoid your headache triggers. If you’ve already taken a look at the left sidebar, you’ll see that headaches have many potential triggers – and that list is by no means complete. As different people have different triggers, most medical sources urge sufferers to keep a headache journal or diary. What should you keep track of in this diary? The foods and liquids you’ve consumed and when, exercise, the date and time of headaches along with a description of the pain, any medication taken or coping strategies used and to what degree you found relief and so on. Using one of the many quality headache diary forms found online (National Headache Institute, American Headache Society) may make this task easier. Checking the history will help you find out what your specific triggers are.
Natural and Alternative Headache Cures
Riboflavin (vitamin B-2).Yes, if you take a riboflavin supplement your urine will glow supernaturally, inspiring both fear and awe in the syphilitic mind of the nosy creep using the adjoining urinal. But that isn’t its only benefit! Limited studies have shown high doses (400 mg once daily) of B-2 to be an effective preventive treatment for migraines.
Biofeedback. The failing school district I used to work for would bring in biofeedback specialists in an effort to keep staff from mass suicide. At first I thought it was new age crystal energy nonsense, but over the past few years I keep finding positive articles about this form of relaxation and body control training in much-respected medical sources. Once schooled in biofeedback, you’ll learn to become aware of and change responses to stress and toil, such as tense muscles, body temperature, and heart rate.
Physical therapy. If you are suffering chronic tension headaches you may benefit from physical therapy. Over a period of therapy sessions, you will receive treatments as well as learn exercises and stretches to heal and strengthen tight or weakened muscles and correct poor posture habits.
Magnesium sulfate. Though more studies are needed, there is some evidence that magnesium may reduce the frequency and harshness of different kinds of headaches – particularly migraines. Research has shown that many people who suffer migraines also have a magnesium deficiency. This deficiency is particularly profound in women who experience headaches before and during menstruation. Dosage recommendations are around 200-600mg daily; however, it is important to talk things over with your doctor before starting any supplement regimen.
Butterbur. The herb butterbur has been shown in limited studies to reduce the frequency and severity of migraine headaches and other headaches for some individuals. Butterbur is usually taken twice daily at a dose of 75 mg. Look for products that contain 15% petasin (active ingredient) and are PA (pyrrolizidine alkaloids) free.
When to Visit the Doctor about your Headaches
Almost all headaches – around 95% – are classified as primary headaches. This means that they are not caused by any underlying illness or disease. Secondary headaches, on the other hand, are symptoms rather than conditions unto themselves. Secondary headaches can be caused by minor things like the flu, or very undesirable maladies like brain tumors, stroke, meningitis, encephalitis, an aneurysm… Generally, it is recommended that you go the doctor if you experience what you would call “the worst headache of your life”, have symptoms like slurred speech, a stiff neck, dizziness or confusion, or trouble seeing, walking, or speaking. Having more frequent or severe headaches than usual also warrants a doctor’s visit.
But you need not be near death to see a doctor. If your headaches cannot be managed with the home treatments and natural remedies found on this page, then you should seek professional help. Doctors prescribe a variety of effective medications that both treat and prevent all kinds of headaches. Chronic tension headaches (two or more debilitating headaches a week) are often treated with antidepressants, anticonvulsants, or muscle relaxants. Migraines are treated with prescription analgesics (pain relievers), antidepressants, anticonvulsants, beta-blockers, and a variety of other medications. Though taking medications often means a slightly lighter wallet and accepting and enduring certain side effects, there is no reason the hills and valleys of your life should be marred by headache pain.