Headaches: Managing a Headache
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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
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.
- Linde K, et al. (2009). Acupuncture for tension-type headache. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
- Linde K, et al. (2009). Acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
- 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.
- 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.
Last Revised: June 14, 2013
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