Top tips to treat your headaches

Do you suffer from headaches? We explore ways in which you can prevent headaches and migraines as well as effective treatments.

 

Headaches are one of the most common complaints the world over: it’s estimated that over 90 per cent of people suffer from at least one headache per year, and many with regular, painful and debilitating versions.

Despite 15 per cent of the Australian population estimated to be taking pain relief medication for a headache at any given time, it can be extremely difficult to know the cause of your pain – and therefore the most effective way to treat it.

“There are hundreds of thousands of possible causes of headache,” says clinical professor of neurology and author of Managing Your Headaches, Dr Mark Green.

“Frequent headaches seriously affect the lives of millions of sufferers. The result can be lost productivity and lost income, restricted activity, lower self-esteem and even social isolation.”

Types of headaches

There are two main categories of headaches – primary and secondary – with primary being the most common.

Primary headaches include migraine, cluster and tension versions, with the latter being the most common. Characterised by a band of pressure around the head together with neck or jaw tightness, a tension headache is generally associated with physical and/or emotional stress. It may also be caused – or aggravated – by dental problems, high blood pressure and eye strain. For some people certain foods can trigger a headache reaction, as can fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Common culprits include MSG, red wine, caffeine, ice cream, cheese and some cured meats.

“Nitrates are added to cured meats to preserve their red colour, as in ham, bacon, salami and hot dogs,” Dr Green says. “Some people are sensitive to them, giving rise to the name ‘hot-dog headaches’.”

Cluster headaches, characterised by a stabbing pain around one eye, are less common and tend to affect men more than women.

“If you have been diagnosed with cluster headaches, you may note that with each attack, your eye gets red and tears,” Dr Green says. “That is part of the syndrome of cluster headaches, not an eye problem.”

The cause of cluster headaches is unknown, although alcohol and cigarettes can be major contributing factors for some people.

A secondary headache is one that is a symptom of another condition or disease, such as an infection (particularly sinus), head injury, eye disease, brain tumour or arthritis.

When to worry

A mild headache can usually be explained by a stressful day and easily dealt with by taking mild over-the-counter pain relief or natural remedy. When headaches are more persistent or when they occur regularly (more than once or twice a week) it’s wise to consult your GP for a professional diagnosis.

Prevention

Recognising what triggers your headaches – as well as factors that exacerbate an existing headache – are the first steps in preventing their occurrence.

“You should realise that most triggers are additive to each other,” Dr Green says.

“When they occur together they may reduce your headache threshold sufficiently to actually bring on an attack. For example, eating hard cheese may not normally bring on an attack, but it might if you were otherwise stressed.”

Practical strategies such as deep breathing techniques, taking a warm bath or getting a shoulder and neck rub can be effective ways of preventing the onset of a headache in times of stress. Avoiding caffeine a can also go a long way towards preventing headaches, often brought on by the withdrawal between doses.

When it comes to food and alcohol, be aware of how the consumption of a particular item precedes a headache and then cut back, particularly in times of stress. Save chocolate, cheese and red wine for times when you are relaxed and happy, eat regular meals to ensure stable blood-sugar levels and drink plenty of water.

For people who suffer from severe headaches and migraines it’s worthwhile ensuring you live and work in a well-ventilated environment, avoiding strong perfumes, exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke as much as possible.

Effective treatments

Paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin are common over-the-counter medications used to treat primary headaches. For severe migraines additional medication may be required.

“Taking three to four aspirins in combination with an anti-nausea medication called metaclopramide is probably the simplest and best drug treatment for migraine attacks,” Dr Clarke says.

“Non-drug measures such as cold compresses and rest in a quiet, dark room will also help. Codeine is a godsend, quickly relieving the pain until the aspirin kicks in.”

Natural remedies may also be effective. There is limited evidence to suggest that peppermint – applied topically as an oil or inhaled – can be effective in providing some headache relief, particularly for tension headaches. There is also some evidence that magnesium deficiency may play a part in the development of some headaches, so talk to your doctor about supplementation.