Common Headaches and Migraines and How to Treat Them

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly half of all adults experience at least one headache in a year, but the severity and length of pain depend largely on the type of headache and can vary for each person. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help relieve the pain and reduce how often you get headaches. To determine which treatments will bring relief, it’s important to know what type of headache you are experiencing.

Common Types of Headaches

Headaches can be classified as primary or secondary. This article focuses exclusively on primary headaches, which are common and caused by problems in the nerves or muscles. For information on secondary headaches, which are caused by other conditions, such as a head injury, allergies, or withdrawal from substances like caffeine, please visit the American Migraine Foundation

There are three main types of primary headaches:

Tension-Type Headache

Tension-type headaches are very common. The pain associated with this type of headache occurs on both sides of the head and feels like you are wearing a headband that is too tight. The pain is typically mild to moderate and doesn’t include any other symptoms. Tension-type headaches can usually be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and at-home remedies such as o cold compresses.

Migraine

Approximately 40 million Americans will experience a migraine attack in a given year, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Migraine attacks are recurring, and the pain is typically a pulsing sensation on one side of the head that can range from moderate to severe. Migraine pain tends to get worse with physical activity and is accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sound, and smell.

Cluster Headache

Cluster headaches are one of the most painful types of headaches, occurring in clusters up to eight times a day for weeks or months at a time. Men experience cluster headaches more often than women. The pain is severe on one side of the head and is typically centered in, around, or behind one eye. Other symptoms associated with cluster headaches include a runny nose; redness, swelling, and tearing of the eye on the affected side; and extreme pain that typically lasts anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours. Cluster headaches can be confused with migraines, but they cannot be treated effectively with OTC medications. Anyone experiencing cluster headaches should see a neurologist.

Self-Care Treatments for Headaches

Some healthy lifestyle habits may help reduce the frequency and severity of headaches, and treatments are available to help people manage their pain as it occurs.

Lifestyle Tips

A healthy lifestyle can reduce the frequency or intensity of some headaches. Getting high-quality sleep for at least eight hours every night, staying hydrated, eating a balanced diet, and managing stress are all key healthy habits to reduce how often you experience headaches and how much they interfere with your life. For people who have headache disorders, high levels of stress can make symptoms worse so people who experience headaches should consider engaging in activities like exercise, meditation, and deep breathing routinely to help manage stress.

The most important piece of advice is to be consistent in adopting these healthy behaviors. For example, avoid skipping meals or losing sleep. Although headache disorders are not caused by specific behaviors, these lifestyle recommendations can help you better manage the intensity and frequency of your headaches.

Acute Treatments

An acute treatment is one that you can use in the moment to reduce the intensity of a headache. Types of treatment can include pain medication or alternative methods to manage your pain.

OTC medicines. Certain OTC pain medicines can help relieve symptoms caused by migraine and tension headaches. For best results, you should take pain medicine at the first sign of a headache. OTC pain relievers include medicines containing acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen sodium. There are also OTC pain relievers that contain a combination of acetaminophen and an NSAID. Not all OTC pain relievers work for headaches, so it’s important to understand each medication’s intended purpose. It’s also important to read the Drug Facts label or consult with your doctor before taking an OTC pain reliever if you are taking other medications. Your doctor can help you make sure you are taking the right medications to treat your headaches.

To avoid a type of secondary headache called medication overuse headache, you should limit your use of pain medications. If you are taking acetaminophen or NSAIDs 15 days or more in a month, or combination pain relievers 10 days or more in a month, you should consult a healthcare professional who can make an accurate diagnosis and work with you to create an effective treatment plan. If you have headache that prompts medication use on four or more days per month, you should consult a physician to ensure you have an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

After taking pain medication, go to a place where you feel you’ll be able to recover. This might be a dark, quiet place, especially if you have a migraine. You may find it helpful to eat a snack and drink a glass of water if you are not feeling nauseous.

Additional treatments. Several additional self-care strategies have helped people who have frequent headaches. It is important to consult with a healthcare professional before integrating one of these into your self-care strategy.

  • Magnesium supplements: As noted by the American Migraine Foundation, magnesium is a safe option for migraine prevention. Research shows that it may also be effective as an acute treatment for migraines, tension-type headaches, and cluster headaches.
  • Pain and tension reducing techniques: Hydrotherapy, including cold compresses on the back of the neck and forehead can alleviate migraine pain during an attack. Reducing muscle tension in between attacks can also help reduce headache symptoms. Muscle relaxing activities, like taking deep breaths, rolling your shoulders, and going for a walk, can reduce neck and shoulder tension, which can be an early sign of tension headaches.
  • Light therapies for migraines: New research shows that people with migraines are particularly sensitive to different light spectrums. In particular, people with migraine may benefit from using sunglasses in bright locations and the use of green lighting, such as green lens filters or green lamps, to soothe light sensitivity.

Signs That You Should See a Doctor

If you have four or more severe headache days a month –– this includes any type of migraine, as well as tension-type headaches that interfere with your daily activities –– it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. In addition, you should see a doctor or other healthcare professional if you are frequently taking pain relievers to manage headache symptoms.

Primary care doctors can help you develop a good treatment plan, but they may also refer you to a neurologist for additional diagnostics. In any case, it’s important to tell your doctor about all of the medications and supplements you are taking to ensure a safe and appropriate treatment plan. Many people manage headaches by combining OTC drugs and supplements as well as prescription medications, and a doctor can confirm whether the dosages and combinations are safe and effective.

Summary

Headaches are a disorder you can’t see, but for those who experience them often, they can interfere with the ability to live a full and productive life. Luckily, there are multiple options available to manage headache and migraine pain through self-care, and healthcare providers who can help you figure out which treatments are best for you.

Elizabeth K. Seng, Ph.D.

Meet Our Experts

Elizabeth K. Seng, Ph.D.

Dr. Elizabeth Seng is a clinical psychologist and head pain expert who specializes in the study and treatment of headache disorders, chronic pain, and other health problems influenced by stress. She specializes in modifying behaviors, thoughts, and lifestyle factors in an effort to improve management of headache disorders. Dr. Seng has been researching factors associated with migraine-related disability and migraine treatment for fifteen years.