The day starts with screaming kids, continues slowly onward with stop ‘n’ go traffic, and ends on a sour note with an angry boss.
By this point, you are ready to chop your head off in order to relieve the pounding pain.
You can take a little comfort in knowing that almost everyone has had such a day…and such a headache. Yet some people fare worse than others do.
An estimated 45 million Americans get chronic, recurring headaches, while as many as 18 million of those suffer from painful, debilitating migraines.
The Three Kinds of Headaches
Although there are nearly two dozen types of headaches, they all fall into three basic categories: tension, vascular, and organic.
Tension headaches, the most common of the trio, cause a dull, nonthrobbing pain, usually accompanied by tightness in the scalp or neck. Triggers range from depression to everyday stresses such as screaming kids and traffic jams.
Vascular headaches are more intense, severe, throbbing, and piercing: They take first prize for pain. Cluster and migraine headaches fall into this category.
Triggers for cluster headaches are unknown, although excessive smoking and alcohol consumption can ignite them. Migraines are thought to be caused by heredity, diet, stress, menstruation, and environmental factors such as cigarette smoke.
Less common are organic headaches, in which pain becomes increasingly worse and is accompanied by other symptoms, such as vomiting, coordination problems, visual disturbances, or speech or personality changes. Triggers include tumors, infections, or diseases of the brain, eyes, ears, and nose.
If you are prone to the usual tension headache, keep reading to learn about home remedies that can help you feel a lot better — fast.
Relaxation to Ease Headache Pain
One easy, pleasant technique for combating the headache-promoting effects of stress is progressive relaxation. It only requires a few minutes and a comfortable chair, sofa, or patch of floor in a quiet spot away from people, phones, television, and other distractions.
Progressive relaxation consists of alternately tensing and then releasing the tension in each muscle or muscle group from one end of your body to the other.
For the purposes of headache relief or prevention, you can focus on the muscles from your forehead to your shoulders. Purposely tense the specific muscle or group as tightly as you can, hold the tension for a few seconds, and finally release the tension, allowing the muscle to slowly relax.
Then proceed to the next muscle or group and repeat. Try the following steps to work the headache zone.
- Scrunch up, then release, your forehead muscles (or furrow your brow).
- Squeeze your eyes tightly closed, then open them slowly.
- Make a wide smile, then allow it to fade.
- Clench your jaw, then relax it.
- Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth, then let it fall back down.
- Press your lips together tightly, then relax.
- Press your head against the floor or the back of the chair, then relax.
- Shrug your shoulders, bringing your shoulders up as close to your ears as you can, then let them fall.
If you have additional time, you can proceed all the way down to your toes, for a whole-body relaxation exercise. Be sure to breathe slowly and deeply throughout the exercise.
Try the following tips for your occasional headache pain. If you’re headaches are frequent or severe, be sure to discuss them with a medical professional.
Try — but don’t overdo — pain pills. A dose of an over-the-counter (OTC) analgesic, such as aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen, is often enough to alleviate the occasional headache.
But if you take more than two doses a day frequently or for more than four or five days in a row to relieve headache pain, contact your doctor.
Taking pain relievers too often can actually worsen your headache pain. For a list of precautions to take when using over-the-counter analgesics.
Lie down. Lying down and closing your eyes for half an hour or more may be one of the best treatments for a bad headache.
For some types of headaches, such as migraines, sleep is the only thing that seems to interrupt the pain cycle. Recognizing the early signs of a headache can keep the pain from getting out of control, since doctors say the sooner you get to bed or lie on a sofa, the sooner a headache will fade.
Don’t let the sun shine in. Especially if your symptoms resemble those of a migraine (such as severe pain on one side of the head, nausea, blurred vision, and extreme sensitivity to light), resting in a darkened room may alleviate the pain, experts agree. Bright light may also cause headaches.
Even staring at a glowing computer screen may be enough to trigger pain on the brain. Wearing tinted glasses or using other means to filter bright light and minimize glare may help prevent headaches.
Use a cold compress. A washcloth dipped in ice-cold water and placed over the eyes or an ice pack placed on the site of the pain are other good ways of relieving a headache.
You might also see if your pharmacy sells special ice packs that surround the whole head (known as “headache hats”) or frozen gel-packs that can be inserted into pillows.
Whatever you use, keep in mind that speed is critical: Using ice as soon as possible after the onset of the headache will relieve the pain within 20 minutes for most people.
Try heat. If ice feels uncomfortable to you, or if it doesn’t help your headache, try placing a warm washcloth over your eyes or on the site of the pain. Leave the compress on for half an hour, rewarming it as necessary.
Think pleasant thoughts. Many headaches are brought on or worsened by stress and tension. Learning to handle life’s difficulties by tuning out unpleasant thoughts may keep the volume down on a bad headache.
When you feel your body shifting into crisis mode after you have a serious disagreement with a spouse or coworker, for example — force yourself to think pleasant thoughts. Relaxing your mind will help you figure out a way to resolve the problem, which can help ward off headache-causing tension.
Check for tension. Along with the preceding tip, stop periodically during the day and check your body for tension. Are you clenching your jaw or wrinkling your brow? Are your hands balled-up into fists?
If you discover these signs of tension, stop, relax, and take a deep breath or two (don’t go beyond a couple of deep breaths, though, otherwise you may begin to hyperventilate). Occasional body checks like this could nip a headache in the bud.
Quit smoking. Smoking may bring on or worsen a headache, especially if you suffer from cluster headaches — extremely painful headaches that last from 5 to 20 minutes and come in groups.
Don’t drink. Drinking more alcohol than you’re used to often causes a notorious morning-after effect — a pounding headache.
But even a single serving of some alcoholic beverages can trigger headaches, including the migraine and cluster varieties, in certain people.
For example, dark alcoholic beverages such as red wines, sherry, brandy, scotch, vermouth, and beer contain large amounts of tyramine, an amino acid that can spark headaches in people who are sensitive to it. And some people appear to be sensitive to the histamine in beer and wine. So if you’re struggling with headaches, abstaining may be your best choice.
Start a program of regular exercise. Regular exercise helps release the physical and emotional tension that may lead to headaches. Walking, jogging, and other aerobic activities help boost the body’s production of endorphins (natural pain-relieving substances).
Cut down on caffeine. The same chemical in coffee and tea that perks you up in the morning can also make your muscles tense and send your anxiety level through the roof.
Consuming too much caffeine can also cause insomnia, which can trigger headaches. Another problem is that many people drink several cups of coffee a day during their work week but cut their consumption on Saturdays and Sundays. This pattern can lead to weekend caffeine-withdrawal headaches.
If caffeine is giving you a headache, wean yourself off the stimulating stuff by cutting your intake slowly. Start by eliminating the equivalent of one-half cup coffee per week until you are only drinking one cup of caffeinated coffee (or its equivalent) per day.
One five-ounce cup of drip coffee contains about 150 milligrams of caffeine. A five-ounce cup of tea brewed for three to five minutes may contain 20 to 50 milligrams of caffeine. And cola drinks contain about 35 to 45 milligrams of caffeine per 12-ounce serving.
Look out for stealth sources of caffeine, too, particularly in the OTC drugs in your medicine cabinet.
Fight the nausea first. Some headaches may be accompanied by nausea, which can make you feel even worse. What’s more, the gastric juices produced by stomach upset may hinder the absorption of certain prescription and OTC analgesics, which may make these drugs less effective at relieving the pain of your headache.
So by first taking care of the nausea, the pain of the headache may be easier to treat. Many patients find that drinking peach juice, apricot nectar, or flat cola helps alleviate nausea. OTC antinauseants such as Emetrol and Dramamine may also be useful.
Rise and retire at the same time every day. Oversleeping can create changes in body chemistry that set off migraines and other headaches. Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day — including weekends — keeps your body in a stable rhythm.
Keep a headache diary. If you get frequent headaches, try to tease out the factors that seem to be responsible.
Get a notebook and keep track of your headaches. Rate each one on a scale of 0 to 3, starting with no headache (a score of 0) and moving up in intensity to mild headache (a score of 1), moderate to severe headache (a score of 2), and incapacitating headache (a score of 3).
Record details about potential headache triggers. Were you under an unusual amount of stress? What did you eat? If you’re a woman, did you have your period?
Did you use medications that contain hormones, such as oral contraceptives? Now look for patterns by connecting days when you had bad headaches with these factors.
This information may help you avoid triggers and can also help your physician devise a better treatment plan.
In the next section, we’ll talk about foods that can cause headaches in people with food sensitivities and natural home remedies from your kitchen that can ease the pain.