Treatments for Headache

Most people can relieve headache pain by making lifestyle changes, learning ways to relax and taking pain relievers. If these approaches don’t work, your doctor may have more suggestions.

Let your health care provider know if you have sudden, severe headaches. Get medical help right away if you have a headache after a blow to your head, or if you have a headache along with fever, confusion, loss of consciousness or pain in the eye or ear.

Source: NIH News in Health (NIH)1

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Back to: « Headache

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Headache Relief

Source: NIH News in Health (NIH)2

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Headache treatment in children and teens usually includes rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain relief medicines. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the drug almotriptan as a treatment for migraine pain in children age 12 and older, and the drug topiramate for migraine prevention in children ages 12 to 17. Always consult with a physician before giving headache medicines to a child. Most tension-type headaches in children can be treated with over-the-counter medicines that are marked for children with usage guidelines based on the child's age and weight. Headaches in some children may also be treated effectively using relaxation/behavioral therapy. Children with cluster headache may be treated with oxygen therapy early in the initial phase of the attacks.

Source: NINDS (NIH)3

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Is there any treatment?

When headaches occur three or more times a month, preventive treatment is usually recommended. Drug therapy, biofeedback training, stress reduction, and elimination of certain foods from the diet are the most common methods of preventing and controlling migraine and other vascular headaches. Regular exercise, such as swimming or vigorous walking, can also reduce the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. Drug therapy for migraine is often combined with biofeedback and relaxation training. One of the most commonly used drugs for the relief of migraine symptoms is sumatriptan. Drugs used to prevent migraine also include methysergide maleate, which counteracts blood vessel constriction; propranolol hydrochloride, which also reduces the frequency and severity of migraine headaches; ergotamine tartrate, a vasoconstrictor that helps counteract the painful dilation stage of the headache; amitriptyline, an antidepressant; valproic acid, an anticonvulsant; and verapamil, a calcium channel blocker.

Source: NINDS (NIH)4

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When headaches occur three or more times a month, treatment is typically recommended. Pain medication, biofeedback training, stress reduction, and elimination of certain foods from the diet are the most common methods of controlling and preventing vascular headaches. Regular exercise, including swimming or vigorous walking, can also reduce the number and severity of migraines.

Source: MedLinePlus Magazine (NIH)5

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Not all headaches require medical attention. But some types signal more serious disorders and call for prompt medical care. These include:

Source: MedLinePlus Magazine (NIH)6

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Questions to Ask Your Doctor

How can I reduce stress, or make other changes in my life to cut down on my headaches?

What pain relievers should I take for a headache?

Is there anything, besides medication, that can help me?

Source: MedLinePlus Magazine (NIH)7

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Self care

If you know what causes your headaches (eg, alcohol, chocolate, cheese) it’s best to avoid these things if you can. 

If you have a headache, drink regular amounts of fluid - especially water - and don’t skip or delay meals (unless you're vomiting). Also, try not to smoke.

If you get a headache, try the following:

  • Take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • Lie in a dark, quiet room (and if possible, sleep)
  • Alternate warm and cool compresses (for 20 minutes each) on your forehead, the base of your skull or your upper neck
  • Get someone to give you a gentle but firm massage to your neck, temples, scalp, back of head and shoulders
  • Have a warm, relaxing bath.

Source: New Zealand Health8

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When it's urgent

If a friend or family member has any of the following symptoms, get them along to your doctor or after-hours medical centre quickly:

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

Source: New Zealand Health9

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10 headache triggers

It's not just stress and nasty colds that cause headaches. Cleaning your home or sleeping in late can cause them too. We reveal 10 headache triggers and how to fix them.

  1. Relaxing after stress

How to fix it: Avoid the temptation to sleep in at weekends. More than eight hours' sleep at a time can bring on a headache. Introduce some relaxation time, such as a yoga class, into your working week, rather than squeezing it all into the weekend.

  1. Pent-up anger

How to fix it: When you start feeling angry, breathe deeply and slowly. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, This should relax your head and neck muscles.

Read more about how to control your anger.

  1. Poor posture

How to fix it: Avoid sitting or standing in one position for a long period of time. Sit up straight and support your lower back. Consider using a special headset if you spend a lot of time on the phone, as holding a handset between your head and shoulder can strain muscles and cause headaches.

You could also see a physical therapist, such as an osteopath or Alexander technique practitioner. They may be able to help you identify and correct any posture problems.

Read more about osteopathy and the Alexander technique.

  1. Perfume

How to fix it: If you’re susceptible to headaches brought on by certain smells, avoid heavy perfumes and strong-smelling soaps, shampoos and conditioners. Use fragrance-free air fresheners and household cleaners, and keep your doors and windows open as much as possible at home. If a colleague’s perfume is bothering you, put a fan on your desk at work.

  1. Bad weather

How to fix it: There’s not much you can do to change the weather. However, by looking at the forecast, you can predict when you’re likely to have a headache and take a preventative painkiller a day or two in advance.

  1. Grinding teeth

How to fix it: Your dentist can fit you with a mouth guard to protect your teeth while you sleep. They cost around £50.

Read more about teeth grinding.

  1. Bright lights

How to fix it: Sunglasses are great at reducing light intensity, and you can wear them inside and outside. Polarised lenses can also help to reduce glare.

At work, adjust your computer monitor or attach a glare screen. You may be able to turn off certain lights or move them. If you can't, change where you sit in the office. Fluorescent lighting tends to flicker, so if you’re able to, substitute it with some other form of lighting.

  1. Food triggers

How to fix it: Keep a migraine trigger diary and once you suspect a certain food may be the cause of your headaches, eliminate it from your diet for a couple of months to see if you get fewer headaches.

If you're concerned about avoiding any food-related trigger factor, see your GP or practice nurse or ask to be referred to a dietician for specialist advice.

Remember to eat regularly, because skipping meals can bring on a headache.

  1. Sex headaches

How to fix it: They’re inconvenient, but these headaches are usually harmless and don't mean you have to avoid sex. Take a painkiller a few hours beforehand to block the headache.

  1. Ice cream

How to fix it: The good news is that ice cream headaches don’t need treatment. In fact, they’re over in a flash, rarely lasting more than a minute or two.

Source: NHS Choices UK10

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How are tension headaches treated?

Tension-type headaches aren't life-threatening and are usually relieved by painkillers or lifestyle changes.

Source: NHS Choices UK11

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Lifestyle changes

Relaxation techniques can often help with stress-related headaches. This may include:

Read more about relaxation tips to help with stress.

Source: NHS Choices UK12

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Painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can be used to help relieve pain. Aspirin may also sometimes be recommended.

If you're taking these medications, you should always follow the instructions on the packet. Pregnant women shouldn't take ibuprofen during the third trimester, as it could risk harming the baby, and children under 16 shouldn't be given aspirin.

Medication shouldn't be taken for more than a few days at a time and medication containing codeine, such as co-codamol, should be avoided unless recommended by a GP.

Source: NHS Choices UK13

Coping with Headache

Headache treatment is a partnership between an individual and his or her doctor, and honest communication is essential. Finding a quick fix to a headache may not be possible. It may take some time for a neurologist to determine the best course of treatment. Avoid using over-the-counter medicines more than twice a week, as they may actually may lead to medication overuse headache with worsened headache pain and frequency of attacks. Visit a local headache support group meeting (if available) or join an online support group to learn how others with headache cope with their pain and discomfort. Relax whenever possible to ease stress and related symptoms, get enough sleep, regularly perform aerobic exercises, and eat a regularly scheduled and healthy diet that avoids food triggers. Gaining more control over your headache, stress, and emotions will make you feel better and let you embrace daily activities as much as possible.

Source: NINDS (NIH)14

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  1. Source: NIH News in Health (NIH): 2008/ June/ docs/ 01features_02.htm
  2. ibid.
  3. Source: NINDS (NIH): disorders/ headache/ detail_headache.htm
  4. Source: NINDS (NIH): disorders/ headache/ headache.htm
  5. Source: MedLinePlus Magazine (NIH): magazine/ issues/ spring09/ articles/ spring09pg18-19.html
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid.
  8. Source: New Zealand Health: your-health/ conditions-and-treatments/ diseases-and-illnesses/ headache
  9. ibid.
  10. Source: NHS Choices UK: livewell/ headaches/ pages/ headachetriggers.aspx
  11. Source: NHS Choices UK: conditions/ tension-headaches/ 
  12. ibid.
  13. ibid.
  14. Source: NINDS (NIH): disorders/ headache/ detail_headache.htm

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Note: This site is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. See your doctor or other qualified medical professional for all your medical needs.