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.
How do you manage a headache?
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.footnote 1
- 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.footnote 2
Other treatments that may help prevent migraines include:footnote 3
- 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. (2016). Acupuncture for the prevention of episodic migraine. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (3). DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001218.pub3. Accessed July 22, 2016.
- 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.
Current as of: March 28, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine