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The best way to get rid of headaches and migraines, fast
There are more than 150 types of headaches. Here’s how to combat 3 of the most common ones: tension-type headaches, cluster headaches and migraine headaches.
Headaches aren’t one-size-fits-all. While some feel like a dull pain at your temples, others come in with such a vengeance that they knock you flat on your back. The discomfort can radiate up from the back of your head or squeeze inward like a rubber band wrapped around your forehead.
That’s because there are more than 150 types of headaches, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Each type has its own signs and symptoms. And they even have different prevention and treatment strategies. (If you’re on a medication for headaches or other conditions, we can help you save. Here’s how.)
More than 90% of people get at least 1 headache over the course of a year, says William B. Young, MD. He’s the medical director of CHAMP, the Coalition for Headache and Migraine Patients. And he’s a professor in the department of neurology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. So it’s worth understanding the differences among 3 of the most common types.
What it usually feels like: Pain occurs on both sides of your head, almost like a vise. This headache usually doesn’t cause throbbing and is less painful than other types of headaches, says Dr. Young. But it can be associated with muscle tightness and tenderness around the head.
For most people, it’s more of an annoyance than a problem. And it usually doesn’t get worse with activity. So most people can go about their normal daily routine.
How to treat it: Over-the-counter (OTC) pain-relief medications are perhaps the most effective options. These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen. (Find the lowest prices on OTC pain relievers at the Optum Store.)
If you find yourself treating tension headaches more than twice a week, talk to your doctor. In rare circumstances when this headache is frequent and impactful enough, medications such as amitriptyline or physical therapy can be beneficial, Dr. Young says. Both can help relax the muscles around the head.
How to prevent it: It can be helpful to pay attention to what happens or what you're doing immediately before the pain occurs. It won't be the same for everyone. “The triggers of tension headaches are uncertain,” Dr. Young says. You can jot them down in a journal. If you see any patterns, you can make tweaks to your routine to help prevent them. Maybe you avoid traveling at rush hour. Or you incorporate yoga practice into your routine.
You can also try non-medication strategies. Options include cognitive behavioral therapy, acupuncture and massage therapy, according to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF). Speaking to a professional can can help you get a handle on stress or your triggers, while acupuncture and massage may help you let go of physical tension.
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What it usually feels like: One word can describe the feeling: horrendous. “A cluster headache attack is probably the most painful condition known to man,” Dr. Young says. The pain is so intense that people may rock themselves to cope.
Dr. Young explains that the pain is always on 1 side of the head and near the eyes. The headache is often accompanied by a drooping eyelid, redness of the white of the eye, or a drippy nose on the side of the headache. This may seem scary. But know that true cluster headaches don’t cause permanent damage.
A single cluster headache lasts about 30 to 90 minutes, according to the Mayo Clinic. And it’s possible to have up to 8 in a day, with pain-free periods in between. Cluster headaches tend to be episodic. This means they occur every day for a certain period of time. Then they can go into remission for months, even years, says Dr. Young.
How to treat it: There are 2 primary ways to get rid of a cluster attack, Dr. Young says. The first is a medication called sumatriptan (Imitrex®). It blocks pain signals and interrupts the reflex that causes tearing and nasal congestion. And it’s available as a self-administered injection or nasal spray. The second is high-dose oxygen therapy that you can also do yourself at home. This relies on a mask to deliver 100% oxygen. The treatment has been used successfully for over half a century, but how it works isn’t clear.
How to prevent it: Experts don’t know what causes cluster headaches. But they’ve identified some potential triggers that may cause a sudden release of brain chemicals that dilate or constrict blood vessels. These include:
- Alcohol use or smoking cigarettes
- Entering high altitudes
- Bright light
- Foods that contain nitrates, such as bacon or deli meats
- Heat, from the weather or a bath
Again, pay attention to what your triggers may be. Keeping a journal can help you and your doctor troubleshoot together. A part of your prevention may include medication.
What it usually feels like: Symptoms of a migraine attack can vary from person to person, explains Dr. Young. It’s typically a moderate to severe throbbing or pulsing sensation. The pain can occur on 1 side of your head or both. It might be in the front or back of your head. And it can occur around your eyes or behind your cheeks.
While cluster headaches are relatively short-lived, migraine headaches can last the entire day (or longer if they aren’t treated). And their severity can change over the course of the headache, but the pain doesn’t go away completely.
The pain may even get to the point that it becomes unbearable, forcing you to miss work or school. Although only 12% of teens and adults ever experience a migraine attack, “it’s the largest cause of headache-related disability and pain, and the second-leading cause of disability in the world,” Dr. Young says.
As if the pain weren’t enough, the attack often comes with other symptoms, too. They can include sensitivity to light, noise or smells. And symptoms may include nausea and vomiting. About 20% to 30% of people with migraine headaches also experience an aura, says Dr. Young. It’s a visual hallucination that lasts about 20 minutes on average before a migraine headache starts.
How to treat it: “There’s no one simple solution for treating a migraine attack,” Dr. Young says.
When the pain is mild to moderate, some things that can offer relief include:
- Resting in a dark, quiet place
- Placing ice packs on your head or neck
- Keeping yourself calm with meditation or relaxation techniques
- Massaging your scalp
- Applying pressure to your temples
- Using OTC pain relievers
Three OTC products are specially approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for migraine headaches. These are Excedrin® Migraine, Advil® Migraine and Motrin® IB Migraine Pain. Be careful, though: It’s possible to overuse OTC medications. And that can lead to medication overuse headaches.
If you’re experiencing frequent or severe migraine attacks, you’re better off with prescription medications, Dr. Young says. “There are also several exciting new acute-migraine medications that have come out in the last few years,” he adds. And this may mean even better relief.
These medications may include sumatriptan (the injection or nasal spray that can help with a cluster headache) or the nasal spray dihydroergotamine (Migranal®). A monthly injection of galcanezumab (Emgality®) offers relief by blocking a substance in the brain that’s thought to play a part in migraine headaches.
How to prevent it: Researchers are still trying to understand why migraine attacks happen. But it’s thought that a mix of genetics and environmental triggers plays a role. It may have to do with changes in how your body interprets pain. Or it might have to do with imbalances in brain chemicals that regulate pain, according to the Mayo Clinic.
There are loads of potential triggers that are seemingly unrelated to migraine headaches. Some of the most common seem to include:
- Hormonal changes. Women are 3 times more likely to have migraine headaches than men, says the AMF. Hormonal fluctuations before or during your period or during milestones such as pregnancy or menopause may be a reason.
- Certain foods or drinks. Many foods have been reported to trigger a migraine attack. Some of the most common include salty or processed ones such as chocolate, cheese and cured meats. Some people also find that alcohol and caffeine can make migraine symptoms worse.
- Stress. The AMF reports that stress is a trigger for almost 70% of people with migraine headaches.
- Changes to your sleep schedule. During sleep, your body (and your brain) renews and repairs itself. And missing out or getting out of your routine can make you more prone to migraine attacks.
- Dehydration. Water plays a key role in helping your body function correctly.
- Bright light or strong smells. Both natural bright light and fluorescent or flickering bulbs can trigger migraine attacks. Some odors can also activate certain nerve receptors in your nose that can make symptoms worse, says the AMF.
Aside from managing your triggers, there are several new preventive medications on the market. So if you don’t already have a treatment plan or your current plan isn’t working, talk with your doctor, especially because migraine disease is chronic. “Even people who don’t often experience attacks have to deal with the anxiety of getting an attack or avoiding triggers,” he adds.
Aiming to live a healthy lifestyle is important, too, adds Dr. Young. Getting the sleep you need, staying hydrated, practicing stress-reduction techniques, being active and eating a healthful diet can all reduce your sensitivity to migraine triggers. If neck or body pain is a trigger for you, physical therapy or therapeutic massage may also help. (This is how you can save money on massage therapy.)
Headaches are a real pain. But they don’t have to stop you from living life to the fullest. With a treatment plan in place — and a few healthy habit changes — you can be ready for whatever comes your way.
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An overview of headache types and symptoms: Cleveland Clinic
Background on tension-type headache: American Migraine Foundation
What a cluster headache is and how it’s treated: Cedars Sinai
How to identify and treat migraine: American Migraine Foundation
The top migraine triggers: American Migraine Foundation