When your head is pounding, you just want it to stop. Get the facts about effective headache treatment, including medications and quick-acting coping tips.
Headaches are one of the most common forms of chronic pain (second only to back troubles). Anyone who’s suffered the splitting pain of a headache — especially a migraine — knows how difficult it can be to drive, work, and even carry on a conversation while your head is pounding.
But when a headache strikes, you can do more than just crawl into bed and wait for it to go away. There are effective headache treatments available and ways to find quick relief.
Headaches can be triggered by stress, fatigue, allergies, eyestrain, poor posture, alcohol or drugs, low blood sugar, hormones, constipation and nutritional deficiencies. Your body is telling you that something needs to change, so begin to heed those signals. You may be wondering, how do you make a headache go away? To find headache relief, use these 10 headache remedies, which include herbs, vitamins, posture correction, diet changes and more, to fight headaches in a natural and healthy way.
Types of Headaches
Although there are 150 different types of headaches, there are four types that are most common. The most common types are:
This is the most common type of headache among adults and teenagers. Tension headaches are also known as stress headaches, chronic daily headaches or chronic non-progressive headaches. Causing mild to moderate chronic pain, they come and go over time.
These headaches are the most severe, but least common type. The pain is intense and can feel like a burning or piercing pain behind the eyes. Cluster headaches occur in groups over a period of time lasting from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. They may go away for months or years, but then come back.
Inflamed sinuses can cause pain in your cheeks, forehead and bridge of your nose. Usually other sinus symptoms, such as a runny nose, fever, pressure in the ears and facial swelling, occur at the same time.
Migraine headaches can last from a few hours to a few days and usually occur one or more times a month. People usually have other symptoms with migraines, including: sensitivity to light, noise or smells; nausea or vomiting; loss of appetite; and upset stomach or belly pain. A child experiencing a migraine headache may turn pale, feel dizzy, have blurry vision, a fever and an upset stomach.
Mixed Headache Syndrome:
This type of headache is also known as a transformed headache and includes symptoms of both migraine and tension headaches. Adults and children may both experience mixed headaches.
Medical Headache Relief
1. Ibuprofen for headaches
Ibuprofen (such as Advil) is an NSAID or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. It works by blocking an enzyme in your body that produces prostaglandins, lipid compounds which behave like hormones in the body and which cause inflammation. If you’re looking for an affordable and fast-acting treatment for a mild headache, ibuprofen is a great option. Just make sure to check with your doctor, because NSAIDS can interfere with many prescription drugs, especially drugs such as lithium, warfarin, diuretics, methotrexate, and other commonly prescribed drugs.
2. Acetaminophen for headaches
Acetaminophen is also an NSAID used that is used to treat headaches. Acetaminophen is less likely to upset your stomach, cause stomach bleeding, result to heart attack or cause ulcers than NSAIDs like ibuprofen. This is also the best over the counter pain reliever for headaches during pregnancy, as it won’t harm the fetus. However, just as with Advil and generic medications, consult with your physician about any and all possible drug interactions when considering using NSAIDS. For a good numbers of run-of-the-mill headaches, it’s regularly recommended to start with acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic) first.
3. Aspirin for headaches
Like ibuprofen, aspirin works to stop the production of prostaglandins. It’s an anti-inflammatory analgesic that’s ideal for mild to moderate headaches. Aspirin can also be used as a preventative measure for migraines but is not deemed strong enough to relieve pain from a migraine that’s already struck. If you suffer from daily or consistent headaches, keep in mind that aspirin should not be taken more than twice a week. However, if you are taking prescription drugs that you cannot take with NSAIDS, regular aspirin might be the perfect choice for you.
The adult recommended dose of aspirin for treatment of headache pain is 325 to 650 mg every three to four hours as required, up to six times per day. Although aspirin may help ease acute migraine pain, it must not be used more than twice a week for treatment of headache to avoid rebound effect or medication overuse.
4. Naproxen sodium for headaches
For strong headaches, try naproxen sodium, an NSAID that helps relieve inflammation. If your headache is persistent, you’ll find that naproxen sodium tends to provide longer pain relief, minimizing the risk for side effects and being more cost effective. You’ll want to check with your doctor about taking naproxen with other prescription medications, as it is an NSAID, and can interfere with some prescribed drugs.
5. Combination of over the counter medications
Can’t decide on an over the counter pain reliever? Try a combination medication such as Excedrin. Excedrin is a common headache reliever and is a combination of acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine. It can block pain but if you’re sensitive to caffeine, you could find yourself in worse shape because, again, this pain reliever contains some caffeine. If stimulants typically make you feel nauseous, shaky, or unable to sleep, this might not be the treatment for you.
Home Remedies for Headache Relief
Drinking water for headaches
If you rely on over the counter medications for headache relief, it might surprise you to learn that sometimes the water you take with the medication does more for your body than the pill itself. Tension headaches are often a common side effect of dehydration. If you notice the start of a headache coming on, think back on your recent water intake. If you’re having trouble remembering how much water you’ve had, enjoy a full glass of water before turning to other treatments.
Water is a great treatment for different types of headaches. A tension headache, for instance, is usually caused by fatigue. Fatigue is a side effect of dehydration. So, if the cause of the headache is dehydration and fatigue. You can treat the fatigue and get hydrated when medications may not be effectual, are not tolerated or are contra-indicated.
Tea for headaches
When you feel a headache coming on, start the kettle. Certain types of tea have been used as effective and natural pain relievers for centuries, especially when it comes to headaches. Green tea is possibly the best tea for headaches and helps in the overall relief of migraines, while chamomile tea can help with some migraine symptoms due to its tension-relieving and sedative properties. You can also try peppermint tea if your headache is paired with nausea or Sichuan lovage for overall headache prevention.
Caffeine for headache
When you have a headache, your blood vessels enlarge, which causes the pain to intensify. Caffeine has vasoconstrictive properties which help to shrink enlarged blood vessels down to their normal size, restricting blood flow and lessening your headache discomfort. So for some individuals, a cup of coffee or tea can cure a headache while for some, a caffeinated beverage can trigger a headache. If you suffer from regular headaches, keep a log to see if caffeine could be playing a role in causing them. But for others, caffeine can be a fast and affordable treatment.
Buckwheat pillow for headache relief
Sleeping on the wrong type of pillow can create too much pressure on the neck and increases the risk of both a poor night’s sleep and injury to the neck muscles, both of which are risk factors for headaches. A recent study has demonstrated that feather pillows actually perform the worst at reducing neck stiffness and headaches. While there are many types of pillow options out there, buckwheat pillows have become a popular choice of people prone to headaches because of their cooling effects, firm support, and natural scent. A buckwheat pillow will construct to the neck, and thus are great for management of neck pain, headaches, and various types of aliments.
The Japanese have used the buckwheat pillow for thousands of years, and two out of three Japanese have one. In the United States people are gradually discovering the benefits of this pillow as a relied for headaches, neck pain, and for optimal relaxation at night. Though not a traditional treatment option for headache, invest in one and see if it helps to relieve any neck-induced headaches. Buckwheat hulls pillows are durable. They don’t conduct or reflect heat like other pillows made from artificial fills. This makes them great for pain relief.
Ginger for headaches
Ginger root can help relieve the pain of an intense headache or migraine and can also alleviate some of the symptoms that come along with the pain. It is believed that ginger can block prostaglandins, those inflammation-triggering molecules that are partially responsible for headache pain. To use ginger root, grind up a half teaspoon of ginger and stir it into a glass of water. You can also make it into a hot tea.
Apple cider vinegar headache remedy
This common kitchen staple can save the day when a headache strikes. Apple cider vinegar is a natural remedy for all kinds of health conditions, including high blood pressure, allergies, fatty liver disease, GERD, heartburn, and sinus issues. If you have any of these kinds of conditions as well as headaches, apple cider vinegar might be the choice for you. To use this remedy, mix 1 tablespoon of the vinegar into a glass of warm water and drink the entire glass down within 10 minutes. You might find that you can get away with less vinegar or that you need to double the dose. Always start out with the recommended dosage before adjusting based on your individual needs.
Other methods headache relief
Biofeedback uses electronic sensors to monitor body functions such as muscle tension, skin temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. Data are fed back to the patient through sounds or computer images. The goal is to teach people how to control bodily responses—easing tight muscles, for example—to prevent headache pain.
Studies show biofeedback could be effective for migraine and tension-type headache. An analysis published in Headache suggests behavioral therapies, such as biofeedback, are more cost-effective over time than prescription drugs.
In acupuncture, thin needles are inserted under the skin to realign the flow of energy, or qi, in the body. In general, treatments run $60 to $120 per session, according to acupuncture referral service.
An expert analysis, known as a Cochrane review, found acupuncture could help prevent acute migraines as well as drug treatments do and with fewer adverse side effects. Evidence also suggests that acupuncture could help people with frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches, they say.
For temporary relief, try rubbing your temples or getting a neck, back, head, or shoulder massage.
In a small study, people with migraines who had six weekly massage sessions had less frequent migraines and better sleep during the massage weeks and the three following weeks than a control group.
Headache-relieving stretches can get at muscle tension that contributes to pain. Add them to your workout or use them when a headache looms.
Try these three: neck range of motion (chin forward, upward, and toward each shoulder); shoulder shrugs (shrug up, up and forward, and up and back); and neck isometrics (press palm into forehead and hold; press hand on each side of the head).
Stretch twice a day for 20 minutes per session. Hold the stretch for five seconds, relax for five seconds, and repeat each stretch three to five times.
Regular aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, biking, or swimming, can reduce migraine intensity and frequency, according to the National Pain Foundation.
In a small study in the journal Headache, migraine patients who were not regular exercisers engaged in a 12-week indoor cycling program. Participants improved their quality of life and reduced the number of migraines they had, as well as the intensity of the pain.
Various meditation techniques can be used to focus attention and quiet the mind from distractions such as chronic pain.
At this point, there is little data on the effect of meditation on migraines. Researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, in Baltimore, are involved in a clinical trial that will try to determine if Vipassana—an ancient Indian meditation technique that focuses on mind-body connectedness—can reduce migraine frequency and severity and improve overall quality of life.
One small study of people with migraines found that spiritual meditation reduced headache frequency and improved pain tolerance more than secular meditation and muscle relaxation.
Could striking a camel pose ease your aching head? Yoga combines physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to boost relaxation and balance the mind, body, and spirit, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
In a small study in Headache, two groups of migraine patients were randomly assigned to three months of yoga therapy or self care. Compared with the control group, the yoga participants had less frequent and less painful attacks, as well as less anxiety.
Deep breathing, relaxing to music, or using mental imagery can help people unwind and possibly help with headache too. Additional research is needed, however.
A study of 90 people with tension headaches found that relaxation training improved their sleep more than acupuncture.
Edmund Messina, MD, medical director of the Michigan Headache Clinic, in East Lansing, teaches a 20-minute muscle-relaxation technique. Patients lie still, breathe in and out slowly, and use a mantra to keep the mind from wandering. They then contract and relax various muscle groups, working from toes to head.
Heat and Cold
Anyone can use this no-risk headache therapy—even pregnant women.
To alleviate neck tightness, apply heat to the back of the neck, Dr. Messina says. For a pulsating headache, however, skip the heat and try icing the temples.
The artery that supplies blood to the dura (the lining of the brain) sits behind the thin bone at the temple, Dr. Messina explains. “That dura gets mighty angry and inflamed when you’re having a migraine,” he says. Lowering the temperature of the blood passing through that area “seems to relieve some of the throbbing.”
Avoid nitrates and nitrites
Nitrites and nitrates in processed meats and monosodium glutamate (MSG) used in foods as a flavor enhancer have been linked to migraines. Some heart medicines also contain nitrate.
Caffeine, alcohol, phenylethylamine (found in chocolate and cheese), tyramine (found in nuts and fermented meats, cheeses, and soy), and aspartame (in many artificially sweetened foods) are headache triggers for some.
Some doctors support taking riboflavin (vitamin B2), magnesium, and coenzyme Q10, among other supplements, as part of a headache-relief strategy. But the evidence is scarce on their effectiveness, and they do carry risks of side effects.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation
Delivering magnetic pulses to the brain may become a useful therapy for zapping migraines, research suggests. A recent study found that when patients treated a migraine with transcranial magnetic stimulation, they got better relief than those who treated their pain with a placebo device.
This noninvasive treatment takes one or two hours and is conducted in a clinic by placing an electromagnetic coil near the head to deliver the pulses.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation, however, is still considered an experimental therapy for treating migraines.
People with intractable headaches may one day rely on electrodes implanted in the neck or brain to provide pain relief.
One such therapy, called occipital nerve stimulation, appears promising in the treatment of cluster headaches and migraines, studies show, although larger studies are needed.
In this treatment, an electrode is surgically implanted at the base of the skull, near the occipital nerve. A power source is also implanted (near the collar bone or elsewhere in the body) to deliver electrical impulses via a wire to the electrode.
While there will probably never be a cure for all types of headaches, progress is being made in the headache and migraine cure realm. This comes as welcome news for those who regularly suffer from painful, pounding headaches. The next time you feel that familiar sensation creeping in to sabotage your day, turn to our list of highly effective headache remedies for prompt relief.