Headaches are an extremely common and disabling condition. Headaches can range from mild to severe, and the causes of headache vary widely. For some people, something as simple as missing their morning cup of coffee or eating a bar of chocolate can bring on a headache or migraine.
Most headaches fall into three categories: tension headache, migraine, and chronic daily headache. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that tension headaches affect more than 66 percent of men and 80 percent of women in developed countries. About 3000 out of every 1,000,000 people experience a migraine each day. Up to 5 percent of adults experience chronic daily headache, a lower-level pain that just won’t go away, nearly every day.
Headaches can damage relationships, work, and family life. According to the WHO, social activities and work capacity are reduced in almost all people who experience migraines and 60% of people who experience tension headaches.
When it's your head that's pounding, how can you get headache relief? Most of the time, you can stop a headache effectively with a combination of natural remedies for headaches and over-the-counter medications. Sometimes, you may need to call your doctor for pain medications -- or even an ambulance if things spiral out of control.
When to Seek Help for a Headache
Most headaches are simply, well, a headache, and they will resolve with home treatment and time. But occasionally, a headache can be a sign that something is seriously amiss.
Call for emergency help (usually 9-1-1) if:
The headache is unusually severe – that is, you could truthfully say, “This is the worst headache of my life.”
The headache comes on suddenly
The person has trouble speaking, seeing, or walking.
The person is severely nauseated and/or you vomit repeatedly
The headache is accompanied by a high fever
These may be signs that the person is experiencing a stroke or other medical emergency.
In some instances, you may need nonemergency help to find headache relief. Call your doctor if:
You experience recurring headaches and you are not receiving treatment for them
You’ve been treating your headaches with the help of a physician, but the treatments no longer help.
There’s a change in your headache pain or patterns
You experience side effects from headache medications. Possible side effects include dry mouth, extreme thirst, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting, constipation, fatigue or extreme sleepiness, depression, a cough that won’t go away, pale or blue skin, and irregular heartbeat.
Here are ten ways to stop a headache and get back to enjoying life.
Medicate: Over-the-counter pain medications can provide effective headache relief. They are most effective if taken at the first sign of headache coming on. But use any pain medication with caution, as overuse can make them less effective. Use them too often, and you risk making an occasional tension headache chronic. If over-the-counter treatments don’t work for you, consult your doctor about other options.
Need to Know
If you are pregnant or could become pregnant, call your doctor before taking any medication – including over-the-counter drugs, caffeine, and natural remedies such as herbs and dietary supplements. Many medications can harm the developing fetus.
Hydrate: Headaches can be a sign of dehydration. Drink water – and plenty of it – throughout the day.
Caffeinate: When you’re in the throes of an aching head, caffeine may be the one of the most useful drugs you can use. Caffeine helps to constrict dilated blood vessels in your head and stop nerves from sending pain messages. Caffeine also helps pain medications work better, which is why many headache relief medications contain a combination of caffeine and one or more pain relievers, such as Tylenol or aspirin. But there’s always too much of a good thing. Be sure to read labels on any medications you take to ensure that you’re not overdoing it. While a little caffeine can help to reduce a headache, too much caffeine can worsen headaches.
Feed it: Your brain needs glucose. It needs it constantly. Headaches, on the other hand, may make you feel nauseated. Eat small, frequent portions of food. Here are some foods and nutrients to try:
Ginger: This fragrant, spicy flavoring can help to quell both an aching head and nausea brought on by a headache. Ginger reduces inflammation and also interferes with the production of histamines – those chemicals that stuff up your head and contribute to headaches. Sip some ginger-root tea or nibble at some crystallized ginger
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Foods high in “good fats” called omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help reduce inflammation throughout the body – including the brain. Foods high in omega-3s include salmon, tuna, mackerel, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, and evening primrose oil.
Vitamin-E rich foods: Some research suggests that foods high in the antioxidant vitamin E may help to reduce inflammation. Good sources of vitamin E include nuts, seeds, and other plant oils, especially olive oil.
Magnesium: Several studies suggest that magnesium may help to reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines and other headaches. Magnesium appears to help promote the production of serotonin, the “feel good” hormone, and affects several other chemicals involved in headaches. Good sources of magnesium include whole grains, avocados , leafy greens, broccoli, sweet potato, squashes, lentils, blackstrap molasses, raisins, nuts, seeds, and seafood.Identify and avoid food triggers. Many people find that chocolate, alcohol, and foods containing MSG can trigger their headaches. Avoid these foods when your head is throbbing.
Massage: More than 90% of headaches are tension headaches, caused by a build-up of tension in the neck and shoulders. Often, you can massage your own headache away. Here’s how:
Stand in a warm shower and let the water pulsate on your neck and upper shoulders. Then use your fingers and thumbs to gently massage the back of your neck.
Gently but firmly massage the painful part of your head using your thumb and forefinger. Move slowly along the hairline from the the temples to the forehead until your fingers meet in the middle.
Massage your scalp. Let your hair down, then use the tips of your fingers to massage your scalp. Use firm pressure and a small circular motion.
Dim the lights: Turn off the lights, lay down, and shut your eyes. Many people experience heightened sensitivity to light during a headache, especially migraine. Researchers aren’t sure why lights seem to be connected to headaches. One study suggests that it may have to do with messages from the optic nerve being intensified on their way to the brain.
Use a cold compress: Apply a cool, wet cloth to your forehead. The coolness helps to constrict blood vessels and stop nerves from firing off pain signals.
Exercise: It may be the last thing you feel like doing while you’re in the throes of a headache, but exercise can stop a headache in its tracks. Exercise causes your body to release “feel good” chemicals called endorphins, which may help to minimize the headache. It also reduces stress, which contributes mightily to all types of headache. Don your sunglasses and get out for a walk. Exercise is also useful for headache prevention.
Avoid tobacco: Smoke from cigarettes, pipes, and cigars can trigger headaches in both smokers and the people around them (via secondhand, or environmental, smoke). Chewing tobacco may also contribute to headache. Nicotine, a chemical found in tobacco, stimulates blood vessels in the brain and 2) Smoking also triggers the ganglion nerves in the back of the throat, which can trigger headaches.
Use Relaxation techniques: Biofeedback, meditation, visualization, and other relaxation techniques may be effective ways for some people to reduce headache. Experiment to find out which ones work for you.
Want more information? See our comprehensive overview of headache causes, symptoms, treatment, prognosis, and more: Headache