Headaches: Managing a headache

Introduction

Managing a headache may reduce its severity and prevent it from coming back. There are many ways to manage your headaches.

  • Identify and avoid triggers that cause your headaches.
  • Avoid taking nonprescription pain relievers more than 3 times a week because you may get rebound headaches. Rebound headaches are usually triggered after pain medicine has worn off, prompting you to take another dose. Eventually, you get a headache whenever you stop taking the medicine.
  • Carry drugs with you to promptly treat a headache that you can tell is starting.
  • Take drugs that cause the fewest side effects, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (for example, aspirin or ibuprofen).
  • Exercise regularly, eat well, and reduce stress to improve your quality of life.
  • Partner with your doctor to find the best treatment for your headaches.
 

Combining stress management therapies with drugs can be an effective way to manage most headaches, including migraines or tension headaches. People react differently to various drugs and stress management therapies. Finding the right combination may help you prevent and manage your headaches.

Medicines to treat frequent or severe headaches include pain relievers (both prescription and nonprescription) as well as antidepressants, seizure medicines, or beta-blockers. Educating yourself on the type of headache you have and best treatment for it can help you manage your headaches.

You may be able to reduce headache symptoms with stress management and nonmedication therapy alone, although you may need drugs if the symptoms get worse. Stress management and nonmedication therapies to help prevent and reduce the severity of headaches include:

  • Biofeedback , a relaxation method to help you learn to control a body function that is not normally under conscious control, such as muscle tension.
  • A relaxation exercise during which you focus on relaxing each muscle group. Relaxation exercises can help with tension headaches. When relaxation exercises and antidepressants are used together as treatment, the results are even better.1
  • Acupuncture , which involves putting very thin needles into the skin at certain points on the body to produce energy flow along the body's meridians. Evidence specifically for tension headaches shows that acupuncture is no better than sham acupuncture (when needles are put into the skin, but not at the right points).2
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) , which may help reduce pain.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy or problem-solving therapy during counseling sessions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and problem-solving therapy can help with tension headaches. When cognitive-behavioral therapy or problem-solving therapy and antidepressants are used together as treatment, the results are even better.1
  • Yoga.
  • Meditation .

Professional counseling can also help reduce stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression.

Test Your Knowledge

When my headache begins, I may be able to keep symptoms from getting worse with biofeedback or relaxation exercises. And if the headache does not get better with this treatment alone, I can add drugs to better manage my symptoms.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Treating headache pain early may prevent the headache from getting worse. Reducing stress may help stop a headache when it is starting, especially if it is linked to stress or anxiety. Adding drugs to stress reduction is an effective way to stop your headache from getting worse.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Treating headache pain early may prevent the headache from getting worse. Reducing stress may help stop a headache when it is starting, especially if it is linked to stress or anxiety. Adding drugs to stress reduction is an effective way to stop your headache from getting worse.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

Early treatment is important because it may prevent headache symptoms from getting worse and help you feel better sooner. You will miss less work or school, and improve the quality of your life.

Test Your Knowledge

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

  • True
    This answer is correct.

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

  •  

Continue to How?

 

There are many ways to manage headaches.

  • 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 drugs to stop your headache (abortive medication) as needed.
  • Take drugs exactly as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Begin stress management therapy as soon as your headache starts.
  • Have a massage to relax tense muscles in your head, neck, temples, face, or jaw.

There are things you can do every day to help prevent headaches.

  • Reduce stress.
  • Identify and avoid headache triggers by keeping a headache diary(What is a PDF document?) .
  • Maintain good posture to avoid muscle tension.
  • Live a healthy lifestyle. Get regular sleep, eat nutritious foods regularly, avoid alcohol and drugs, and avoid foods that may trigger your headaches.
  • Avoid overexertion. Some headaches can be triggered by intense physical activity.
  • Avoid taking nonprescription pain relievers more than 3 times a week because you may get rebound headaches. Rebound headaches are usually triggered after pain medicine has worn off, prompting you to take another dose. Eventually, you get a headache whenever you stop taking the medicine.

Test Your Knowledge

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

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    You may be able to prevent your headache from getting worse by immediately beginning stress management therapy and possibly taking medicine. The longer you wait to respond to your headache, the more likely it is to get worse.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    You may be able to prevent your headache from getting worse by immediately beginning stress management therapy and possibly taking medicine. The longer you wait to respond to 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 headache.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Responding to headache symptoms by lying down and placing a cold cloth or ice pack on your head or face may be all that is needed to reduce your headache symptoms. But if your doctor has prescribed drugs to stop a headache from getting worse (such as an antimigraine medication for migraine aura), you should always follow your doctor's instructions and take your medicine as soon as the headache begins.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Responding to headache symptoms by lying down and placing a cold cloth or ice pack on your head or face may be all that is needed to reduce your headache symptoms. But if your doctor has prescribed drugs to stop a headache from getting worse (such as an antimigraine medication for migraine aura), 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, 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 are noticing changes in your symptoms.

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

Return to topic:

References

Citations

  1. Holroyd KA, et al. (2001). Management of chronic tension-type headache with tricyclic antidepressant medication, stress management therapy, and their combination. JAMA, 285(17): 2208–2215.
  2. Melchart D, et al. (2006). Acupuncture for idiopathic headache. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (4).

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