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Help for Headaches

Knowing the type and triggers is only the first step to finding relief.

It’s difficult to think of a more universal experience of pain than a headache. In fact, it is the most common form of pain, and a major reason for missed days of work and school. There are more than 150 types of headaches, but the most common are migraine and tension-type headaches.

Secondary headaches may occur as symptoms of another health disorder—anything from high blood pressure to head injury or stroke. Headaches can vary from mild to brutal, and some people experience them rarely, while others battle migraines more often.

Common Types of Headaches

Understanding the type of headache you have can help you pin down the cause. Different types of headaches require different approaches to prevention and treatment.

Tension-Type Headaches

What they are: The most common type of headache, tension headaches can be mild or disabling. While the name suggests the cause might be psychological, there is evidence now that tension-type headaches have a physical cause. They can last from 30 minutes to a week and typically affect both sides of the head. People describe the pain as feeling “vise-like” or as though there is a band wound tightly around your head. You may also experience increased sensitivity to light or sound, and your head and neck muscles may feel tender.

Causes: Tight muscles in your head, neck, shoulders, and jaw can cause these headaches. Overwork, lack of sleep, missed meals, or too much alcohol also can contribute to tension-type headaches.

Treatment: If you have tension-type headaches infrequently, you may treat them with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or aspirin.

Prevention: If you need to use these treatments more than twice a week, or if your headaches are long-lasting, frequent, or particularly disabling, you may wish to explore preventive treatment. Making sure you eat regularly, sleep well, manage stress, and don’t work too much can all help prevent tension-type headaches.

Biofeedback, massage therapy, acupuncture, cognitive-behavior therapy, relaxation techniques, and physical therapy have all been shown to help prevent tension-type headaches. There are also some medications such as amitriptyline that can help. Check with your primary care provider to determine which medications may be appropriate.

Migraine Headaches

What they are: Migraines are usually characterized by intense, throbbing pain on one side of the head (sometimes both sides), often in the temples or behind one eye or ear. You may also experience nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound, and you may see flashing lights or spots or have temporary vision loss. The pain can last anywhere from a few hours to one to two days.

Causes: While the exact cause of migraines isn’t fully understood, abnormal changes in the levels of substances produced in the brain is thought to underlie migraine. An increase in these substances can cause inflammation, which in turn causes the blood vessels in the brain to swell, pressing on nerves and causing pain.

What experts do know is that migraines are often caused by various events and factors called triggers. These can vary from person to person, and a combination of triggers, rather than a single trigger, is more likely to cause a migraine.

Treatment: Your provider can prescribe two types of medications: one that prevents migraine attacks and one type that will treat them when they do occur. But you can also try other approaches to help prevent migraines.

Prevention: Identifying and avoiding your personal triggers is key to preventing migraines. Keeping a headache diary may help you figure out your triggers. While everyone has different triggers, there are a few that are common to many people who live with migraine.

Common triggers include:

  • Stress

  • Lack of sleep

  • Changes in or an irregular sleep schedule

  • Skipping meals

  • Changes in weather

  • Alcohol (especially red wine)

  • Caffeine or caffeine withdrawal

  • Hormonal changes due to your menstrual cycle

  • Bright lights

  • Strong odors

  • Loud noises

  • Anxiety and stress

  • Certain foods, such as those that contain monosodium glutamate (MSG), nitrates, aspartame, or tyramine (found in aged cheeses, soy, and smoked fish, among others)

Biofeedback has been shown to help migraine sufferers. Biofeedback gives you information about your body’s functions that you can use to increase your awareness of those functions and then alter them. For example, biofeedback may reveal patterns of muscle tension, which you can then use to consciously relax the affected muscles.

Stress is a common migraine trigger, so trying approaches that reduce stress, such as meditation, acupuncture, and relaxation techniques, may help you.

Know When to Seek Help

Be sure to check in with your provider if you have any concerns about the frequency or intensity of your headaches. Sometimes, headache can be a sign of a more serious health issue. If your headaches are frequent, long-lasting, disrupt your life, or cause nausea, vomiting, confusion, convulsions, or sensory problems like vision changes or numbness, you should visit your provider.

© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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