Managing Headaches

Written by Jaime Herdon | Published on October 7, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on October 7, 2014

How to Manage Headaches

Pain in the head region is called a headache. There are hundreds of different kinds of headaches, depending on where the pain is located, what the pain is like, and the course of the headache. The most common kind of headaches are tension headaches. Other types of headache include sinus, menstrual, cluster, and migraine. Treatment for headache can vary and some types of headaches respond better to certain treatments. See your doctor if you experience headaches to make sure there is no underlying medical cause. Depending on the kind of headache you have, they may also be able to recommend one treatment over another.

Treating Headache with Medication

Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin can relieve pain associated with tension headaches. They may also lessen the severity of migraine headaches.

Prescription medications are usually recommended for migraines or cluster headaches. Triptans were the first category of drugs specifically developed to target migraines. These drugs include sumatriptan (Imitrex) and zolmitriptan (Zomig). They might be used as preventive medications or to treat symptoms. Talk with your doctor about which medications may be best for your headaches.

Drugs that contain ergotamine (ergots) constrict smooth muscle, such as that found in larger arterial blood vessels. When blood vessels constrict, this can help reduce migraine pain. Although widely available for a long time in numerous forms (oral, injectable, intra-nasal, and rectal), these drugs aren’t as widely used as triptans. Triptans are more effective in most cases.

If your doctor prescribes medication for your headaches, tell them about any other medications or supplements you are taking to avoid any adverse interactions.

Behavioral Treatments for Headache

Medication is not always necessary for headache relief, especially if the headaches are caused by tension. Techniques that have been shown to reduce headache pain include:

  • massage
  • relaxation training
  • meditation
  • lying down in a dark and quiet room
  • hot or cold compresses on the head and neck

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be beneficial for some patients. CBT is a kind of talk therapy that enables patients to identify and deal with stressors. Stress management techniques, reframing situations and symptoms, and changing dysfunctional thought patterns are all part of CBT. 

Lifestyle Changes to Treat Headache

Changing your diet can affect your headaches. Some individuals with migraines are triggered by foods. Trigger foods include:

  • those high in monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • lunchmeats containing nitrates
  • red wine (which can contain two often implicated chemicals: tannins and sulfites)

If you are unsure whether any foods trigger your headaches, keep a headache diary. Note any headaches that follow ingestion of certain foods.

Make sure you are eating regularly. Skipping meals can cause low blood sugar and headaches.

Stay physically active. If your headaches are caused by stress, physical activity can help. Before starting any exercise routine, check with your doctor to make sure it’s safe and appropriate for you to do so.

Complementary Treatment for Headaches

Some individuals find that complementary or alternative treatments are effective in relieving headache pain. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice that has gained popularity in Western cultures.  Acupuncture therapists use thin needles inserted into particular areas of the skin. Although not fully understood, this process releases chemicals in the body that may have beneficial effects on numerous conditions, including headaches. Certainly, there has been ample anecdotal reports that acupuncture has been beneficial for headache in some individuals. An analysis published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR) reported that acupuncture could be a valuable non-pharmacological tool in for people with frequent tension-type headaches.

Several herbs and supplements that claim help with headaches inlcude:

  • ginger
  • vitamin B2
  • magnesium supplements
  • fish oil

Before using any of these treatments, ask your doctor if it is safe to do so, given your health history and any other medications you are on. 

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