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Dealing with Headaches

Identifying Headaches

Almost everyone gets an occasional headache that a pain reliever will take care of. But more than 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches or migraines.

If you're one of them, determining the kind of headache you have, its probable cause, how to treat it and how to prevent it from recurring can be well worth the effort.

Review the following discussion of various types of headaches, then evaluate your lifestyle and habits to determine if you can eliminate the triggers of your pain.


The most common headache, a tension or muscle-contraction headache, involves mild or moderate pain. Sufferers can get relief with nondrug treatments or over-the-counter medications. A doctor's care rarely is required.


  • A dull pain or pressure in the scalp, temples or back of the neck. The pain often is described as having your head squeezed in a vice or like wearing a too-tight hat.

  • The pain is in the front or back of the head and sometimes extends to the neck and shoulders.

  • The headache may last an hour or two or all day; the pain often occurs in late afternoon or evening as daily stresses add up.

  • The headache may appear before, during or after a stressful event.

  • Exposure to noise, glare or a stuffy environment makes the headache worse.

Common triggers:

  • Emotional stress.

  • Untreated depression.

  • Poor posture or a sudden strain.


  • Over-the-counter pain relievers.

  • Hot and/or cold showers.

  • Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation.

  • Adequate rest and relaxation.


  • Manage stress and depression.

  • Avoid awkward postures.

  • Exercise to keep in shape and reduce stress.


Cluster headaches are painful and disruptive, and most sufferers are men. The headaches usually start occurring between ages 20 and 40.

The typical sufferer experiences one to five headaches a day, every day for weeks or months. They eventually disappear, only to reappear weeks, months or a year later.


  • Pain around or behind one eye or around the temple or forehead.

  • Excruciating sharp pain, with possible throbbing.

  • Pain that may develop during sleep and can last from 20 minutes to 2 hours.

  • Pain that may be accompanied by nasal congestion, runny nose, teary eyes or droopy eyelids.

Known triggers:

  • Alcohol.

  • Cigarette smoking.


  • Taking a prescription medication like sumatriptan (Imitrex) or another triptan. Triptans need to enter the bloodstream quickly to be effective, so they are often inhaled or placed under the tongue. Other medical treatments include intranasal lidocaine, dihydroergotamine or capsaicin, or oral indomethacin.

  • Breathing 100% oxygen for 5 to 15 minutes. But this treatment is difficult to administer because access to an oxygen tank is required.


  • Stop smoking and drinking to excess.

  • Verapamil, indomethacin, and some anticonvulsants can be effective.

  • Prednisone can also provide relief from cluster headaches .

  • Lithium carbonate also may be prescribed, but it produces serious side effects. Your doctor should monitor the amount of the drug in your blood.


Migraines cause pain, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound and visual and neurological symptoms. They're four times more common in women than men.


The symptoms of a migraine are often preceded by other warning signs. You may feel elated, thirsty, hungry for sweets, drowsy, irritable or depressed hours before the headache develops.

  • Intense, throbbing head pain is sometimes accompanied by nausea and vomiting.

  • Pain that may be felt on one or both sides of your head.

  • Pain that is aggravated by activity.

  • Increased sensitivity to light and sound.

  • A headache that may last several hours or up to three days.

Common triggers:

  • Menstruation or birth-control pills.

  • Foods such as aged cheese, red wine and chocolate.

  • Stress or feelings of being trapped and powerless.

  • Lack of or too much sleep.

  • Alcohol.

  • High humidity or weather changes.


  • Lie down in a dark, quiet room.

  • Apply an ice pack or alternate applying heat and cold to your head.

  • Vigorously massage the painful area.

  • Drink a cup of coffee or a cola.

  • Take over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers ibuprofen and/or acetaminophen; some formulations contain caffeine while others contain narcotic medication.

  • Take a dose of ergotamine tartrate, which usually stops a migraine attack as it begins. It is usually effective when taken in the first hour of a migraine. Ask your doctor about other drug therapies including triptans, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers and tricyclic antidepressants.

  • Take over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers.


  • Avoid known triggers such as particular food items.

  • Learn to cope with stress.

  • Practice relaxation techniques.


If you suffer from headaches, there are many ways you can relieve your pain.

Here are some strategies for doing so.

  • Take aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen when you notice a headache coming on. Any of these pain relievers should help you get rid of a headache. Avoid aspirin and anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen, if you have a sensitive stomach. And be careful about overmedicating. If used too frequently, these medications can cause a headache when you stop using them.

  • Drink something that contains caffeine or take a pain reliever that contains the stimulant. Caffeine sometimes provides headache relief by constricting dilated blood vessels, which often cause the pain. But use caffeine with caution; frequent caffeine use can lead to headaches when you curtail your caffeine intake.

  • Apply an ice pack to the painful area, the back of your neck, the top of your head or your forehead or temples. The cold helps alleviate pain by constricting dilated blood vessels. Wrap the ice pack with a cloth or paper towel to cushion it and protect your skin.

  • Apply heat. Applying a heating pad or a hot, wet washcloth to the painful area may provide relief by increasing blood flow and relaxing your muscles.

  • Stand and sit up straight. Bad posture can contribute to a headache by causing the muscles in your neck to contract.

  • Massage your head, shoulders and neck. Use your thumbs to apply pressure under the bony ridges at the nape of your neck.

  • Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or visualization. Deep relaxation can reduce your body's response to stress and relieve pain by lowering your blood pressure, breathing rate and pulse. This helps reduce muscle tension in your head and neck and increases blood flow. Relaxation techniques must be practiced regularly to be effective.

  • Exercise. Aerobic exercise, such as cycling, swimming and walking, can help prevent headaches by promoting relaxation, stimulating circulation and reducing stress, depression and anxiety. Exercise for at least 30 minutes, three to five times a week.

  • Rest in a dark, quiet room. Doing this helps relieve your pain by promoting relaxation.


Most headaches can be self-treated, but consult your doctor if you suffer frequent or severe headaches or headaches with these characteristics:

  • They get progressively worse, stronger or more frequent over time.

  • You never had them before, and they come on suddenly.

  • They cause your personality or behavior to change.

  • They cause weakness, or they affect your vision, senses or walking ability.

  • They're accompanied by a stiff neck, fever or rash.

  • They come on suddenly after you cough or exert yourself.

  • They're accompanied by an unexplained fever or breathing problem.

  • They occur after a head injury or accident or after a sore throat or respiratory ailment.

  • They start appearing and recurring after age 40.

  • They disrupt your life, work or regular activities.

  • They have no pattern or trigger.

  • They are accompanied by numbness, dizziness, blurred vision or memory loss.

Seek immediate medical attention if you develop any of these symptoms with a headache:

  • Disorientation or delirium.

  • Uncontrollable nausea or vomiting.

  • Inability to move a limb.

For More Information

National Headache Foundation, visit

American Council for Headache Education, visit

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© 2011 Krames StayWell 2011. The information in this newsletter is intended to be used as a general guideline and should not replace the advice of your doctor. Always consult your doctor for personal decisions. Models used for illustrative purposes only. Material may not be reproduced without written permission from StayWell Custom Communications.