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You can reduce how many headaches you get and how bad they are when you do get them. Try to:

  • Find and avoid triggers that cause your headaches.
    • Tension Headache Triggers
    • Migraine Headache Triggers
  • Carry your medicine with you so you can treat a headache right away when you feel one starting. This is especially important if you get migraines.
  • Don't take over-the-counter pain relievers more than 3 times a week, because you may get rebound headaches. These headaches usually occur after pain medicine has worn off. This prompts you to take another dose. After a while, you get a headache whenever you stop taking the medicine.
  • Take drugs that cause the fewest side effects, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (for example, aspirin and ibuprofen).
  • Exercise regularly, eat well, and reduce stress.
  • Work with your doctor to find the best treatment for your headaches.

 What is the best way to treat and prevent headaches?
 Why should you quickly manage your headache?
 How do you manage a headache?
 Where to go from here

Taking medicines and reducing stress can help you treat and prevent migraines and tension headaches.

  • Reducing stress may be all you need to stop or prevent a mild tension headache. But you may need to take medicine if your symptoms get worse.
  • You may need to try several medicines and ways of reducing stress to find the best treatment for you.
  • Medicines to stop a headache include pain relievers (prescription, over-the-counter, or both).
  • Medicines to prevent a headache include antidepressants and seizure medicines. The type of medicines you take will depend on the type of headache you have and how bad your symptoms are.
  • A counselor or therapist can help you reduce stress. He or she also can help treat anxiety or depression if you have those health problems. Anxiety and depression can cause headaches.

Test Your Knowledge

  1. When my tension headache begins, I may be able to keep symptoms from getting worse with stress relief. And if the headache does not get better, I can take medicines to better manage my symptoms.

    1. True
    2. False

Continue to Why should you quickly manage your headache?
Return to Headaches: Managing a Headache

Early treatment may keep your headache from getting worse and may help you feel better sooner. This is especially true if you have migraine headaches. You will miss less work or school, and you may improve the quality of your life.

Test Your Knowledge

  1. Treating my migraine right away can improve the quality of my life.

    1. True
    2. False

Continue to How do you manage a headache?
Return to Headaches: Managing a Headache

Stopping headaches

You can try several things to stop a headache after it starts:

  • 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 your medicines exactly as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Begin stress-relief methods as soon as your headache starts.
  • Have a massage to relax tense muscles in your head, neck, temples, face, or jaw.

Preventing headaches

You can do things every day to help prevent headaches:

  • Find and avoid your headache triggers by using a headache diary (What is a PDF document?).
  • Sit and stand with good posture to avoid muscle tension.
  • Live a healthy lifestyle. Get regular sleep, eat healthy foods at regular times, avoid alcohol and drugs, and avoid foods that may trigger your headaches.
  • Don't get too tired from hard physical activity.
  • Don't take over-the-counter pain relievers more than 3 times a week, because you may get rebound headaches.
  • Try to reduce stress and headache pain with one or more of these treatments:
    • Biofeedback is a relaxation method to help you learn to control a body function—such as muscle tension—that you normally don't control.
    • Acupuncture involves putting very thin needles into the skin at certain points on the body. Research shows that acupuncture can help prevent some headaches.1, 2
    • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) uses a mild electrical current to reduce pain.
    • Cognitive-behavioral therapy or problem-solving therapy. Counseling with these methods can help with headaches. For more information, see Stop Negative Thoughts: Choosing a Healthier Way of Thinking.
    • Yoga
    • Meditation
    • Peppermint oil or menthol. Some research shows that peppermint oil rubbed on your temples or on the tight muscles in your head, neck, and shoulders may help relieve headache pain.3

Preventing migraines

Other treatments that may help prevent migraines include:4

  • Butterbur. This herb has been shown to help prevent migraines in some people.
  • Feverfew. This is an herb that—some small studies show—may help prevent migraines in some people.
  • Magnesium. Studies have found that some people with migraines have low levels of magnesium in the brain. Taking magnesium may help prevent migraines.
  • Riboflavin (vitamin B2). This vitamin may help prevent migraines.
  • Coenzyme Q10. This supplement worked to reduce the number of migraines some people had in a small study.

Test Your Knowledge

  1. When I first have signs of a headache, I should try to ignore it because it might go away.

    1. True
    2. False
  2. Lying down in a dark, quiet room with a cold cloth over my head may be all I need to do to manage a tension headache.

    1. True
    2. False

Continue to Where to go from here
Return to Headaches: Managing a Headache

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, print it out and 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 have any change in your symptoms.

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

Return to topic:

  • Migraine Headaches
  • Tension Headaches

Return to Headaches: Managing a Headache

Citations

  1. Linde K, et al. (2009). Acupuncture for tension-type headache. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).

  2. Linde K, et al. (2009). Acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).

  3. Haghighi AB, et al. (2010). Cutaneous application of menthol 10% solution as an abortive treatment of migraine without aura: A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossed-over study. International Journal of Clinical Practice, 64(4): 451–456.

  4. Holland S, et al. (2012). Evidence-based guideline update: NSAIDs and other complementary treatments for episodic migraine prevention in adults: Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society. Neurology, 78(17): 1346–1353.


By: Healthwise Staff Last Revised: June 14, 2013
Medical Review: Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Andrew Swan, MD, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine

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