Headache Relief: Getting to the Source of the Problem

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To be human, it seems, means to have headaches. If the $4 billion Americans spend on over-the-counter (OTC) pain pills is any indication, a lot of us fend off headaches fairly regularly.

Figure out which kind of headache you are experiencing, and find the right relief.

Causes of Tension Headaches & Possible Remedies

About 80 percent of headaches are tension headaches. These generally respond well to OTC pain medications such as acetaminophen or aspirin. Although a tension-type headache isn’t disabling—most people can keep doing what they need to during the day—it’s annoying. Stress is the biggest cause. It also helps to be mindful of other potential triggers, such as too little sleep, dehydration, caffeine overuse, or skipping meals.

Headaches & Vitamin D Deficiency

It’s possible that your headaches aren’t from stress, but instead due to vitamin D deficiency. Research checking blood levels of vitamin D and noting headache frequency of each person found that being in the low vitamin D group showed strong crossover with also being in the high-frequency headache group.

Vitamin D deficiencies rank as one of the more common vitamin deficiencies, especially in the fall and winter. This is because vitamin D can be made by the skin by the action of sunlight. It’s prudent to focus on dietary (and perhaps supplemental) sources of vitamin D, at least for the non-sunny parts of the year.

A pleasant-smelling way to relieve tension headache pain comes in the form of topical peppermint oil. When people with tension headaches apply peppermint oil or placebo, the peppermint group gets relief. The topical peppermint even relieves headache pain as well as aspirin and other OTC pain relievers

The Challenge of Migraines

Disabling pain that interferes with daily living is one of the things that define a migraine. Women are three times as likely as men to get migraines. OTC pain relievers help ease the pain, but many people with migraines end up needing prescription medication.

Find Your Migraines Triggers by Keeping a Diary

A headache diary with notes about your headaches and your diet can reveal patterns and connections with your migraines. What triggers a migraine varies quite a bit among migraineurs but a good starting point is to consider alterations in sleep patterns (both over- and under-sleeping), skipping meals, alcohol, and emotional stress.

The most common food triggers include red wine, draft beer, aged cheese, garlic, onion, and chocolate. With most food triggers, you’ll know within a couple of hours if there is a connection, although chocolate and caffeine can take longer to trigger a headache.

A headache diary will also reveal any connections to your menstrual cycle. So-called “menstrual migraines” strike each month around the time of a woman’s period due to falling estrogen levels.

Supplements for Migraine Relief & Prevention

The herb feverfew can ease the frequency, severity, and duration of migraine attacks. Keep in mind that it’s not an instant cure. Take this herb daily for at least four to six weeks before expecting protection against migraines.

In addition, research shows that many headache sufferers run low when it comes to the mineral magnesium. For women with menstrual migraines, taking magnesium supplements every day for a week or two prior to each month’s period can reduce the number of headaches.

B vitamins also deserve consideration when it comes to migraine prevention. Those who experience frequent migraines can reduce their occurrence and severity with daily supplementation of folic acid (5 milligrams) combined with vitamin B6 (80 milligrams).

No matter what kind of headaches you get, headache experts find that clean living can go a long way in heading off future headaches. You’ve heard it before, but it doesn’t hurt to review it: Get regular sleep and exercise, eat healthy meals, and if you have stress, try practicing yoga, meditation, or biofeedback-assisted relaxation.

Other Causes of Headaches

  • Caffeine-Withdrawal Headache

    Caffeine addicts can get a headache about a day after their last dose. A cup of coffee will solve the problem.

  • Cluster Headache

    Cluster headaches have most of the pain around one eye, have a rapid onset, and reoccur in clustered groups for days, weeks, or months until a remission period. Smoking is a risk factor for these headaches and they are more common in men.

  • Dehydration Headache

    Dehydration can trigger a headache. Remedy by drinking water.

  • Eyestrain Headache

    Too much computer work can trigger a headache. Resting your eyes several times an hour and possibly getting prescription glasses geared toward computer use can solve the problem.

  • Rebound Headache

    Taking OTC painkillers too often can result in a “medication overuse” or rebound headache. Avoid this trouble by limiting analgesic use to no more than twice a week.

  • Sinus Headache

    This headache develops as a result of a sinus infection. The pain is centered around the eyes and cheeks, and worsens when bending over. These headaches are rare; many supposed cases of sinus headache are migraines.

  • Thunderclap Headache 

    A sudden and severe headache, often described as the worst headache possible, could signal a life-threatening condition, such as a stroke or aneurysm; seek immediate medical attention.

Contributor: 

Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH

Victoria Dolby Toews has been a health journalist for two decades; her latest book is Life After Baby: Rediscovering and Reclaiming Your Healthy Pizzazz.

Read more from Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH