Headache Treatment

More than 47 million Americans have experienced a severe or debilitating headache in the past three months. Migraines alone affect 9% of the U.S. population and costs $1 billion a year in direct medical expenses.

Take an over-the-counter pain reliever. Most painkillers won’t kick in for about 1-2 hours, so take a dose as soon as you start feeling the headache coming on.[1] Earlier treatment is always better to address a headache. Even if you’re already in the depths of misery, a quick dose of ibuprofen, acetaminophen, naproxen, aspirin or even a capsaicin nasal spray can take the edge off.

  • Be careful not to take medications daily unless you’re told to by your doctor. Everyday use of even over-the-counter medications can be linked to Medication Overuse Syndrome, where a person takes medication they don’t actually need because they’re afraid of future headaches.[2] This misuse can actually cause frequent, recurrent headaches called “rebound headaches”.
  • If you frequently take headache medication 3+ times a week, see a doctor. The more medication is used for treatment, the more tolerant of that medication a patient may become. This can lead to side effects such as a lower pain tolerance and increased occurrence of “rebound headaches.”
  • The treatment for “rebound headaches” is to reduce or stop taking the pain medication. Speak with a doctor to figure out how to effectively manage your medication.

Know when to seek medical assistance immediately. If your headache includes other symptoms, it may be a sign of a more severe condition, such as stroke, encephalitis, or meningitis. See a doctor immediately or call the emergency services if your headache also includes:[3]

  • Trouble seeing, walking, or talking
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • High fever (102-104F)
  • Fainting
  • Difficulty using one side of your body
  • Feelings of extreme weakness, numbness, or paralysis
  • Also see a doctor if you have frequent or severe headaches, your medication doesn’t work, or you can’t function normally.

Use caffeine carefully––it can be a double-edged sword. Though caffeine (which is included in some OTC pain relievers) can initially help a headache, it can also lead to more headaches over time by developing or worsening a caffeine dependence. During headache attacks, adenosine is elevated in the bloodstream. Caffeine helps by blocking adenosine receptors.[4]

  • Limit caffeine treatment of headaches to no more than twice a week.[5] More often than this and your body can become dependent on caffeine, especially among migraine sufferers. If you’re a heavy caffeine drinker (more than 200 milligrams per day, or about 2 cups of coffee) and you suddenly take it out of your diet, headaches are a common side-effect.[6] This is because daily use of caffeine dilates the blood vessels in your brain. When caffeine is withdrawn, these blood vessels constrict, causing headaches. Learn how to slowly and effectively overcome caffeine withdrawal if you consume too much caffeine and think this might be contributing to your headaches.
  • If you have frequent headaches, it’s ideal to avoid all caffeine whenever possible.

Drink plenty of water. Dehydration can lead to a headache, especially if you’ve vomited recently or you’re hungover.[8] Drink a tall glass of water as soon as your head starts to hurt, and try to continue drinking small sips throughout the day. You may gradually feel the pain start to ease.

  • For men, drink at least 13 cups (3 liters) of water a day. For women, drink at least 9 cups (2.2 liters) of water a day. You should drink more if you exercise frequently, live in a hot or humid environment, have an illness that causes vomiting or diarrhea, or are breast-feeding.[9] Another way to calculate your daily water needs is by weight; every day, you should try to drink between 0.5 and 1 ounce of water for every pound that you weigh.[10]
  • Don’t drink water that’s too cold if you already have a headache. Extremely cold or iced water can trigger migraines in some people, especially if they’re already prone to migraine headaches.[11] Room-temperature water is a better option.