What’s Causing Your Headaches—and How to Get Rid of Them for Good
A bad headache can ruin a perfectly good day. Headaches are incredibly common, but they’re also quite specific—believe it or not, there are more than 150 kinds. Broadly speaking, headaches fall into two different categories: primary and secondary.
Primary headaches stand alone; they don’t stem from an illness. Secondary headaches are caused by an injury or medical condition, like trauma to the body, high blood pressure, a concussion or a sinus infection. If frequent or severe headaches are making you suffer, this article can help you figure out what’s behind your head pain and how to nip it in the bud.
Common Types of Headaches and Their Triggers
Even if you aren’t sure what sort of headaches you’re having, you’ve probably heard of these familiar categories before:
Tension headaches. These are the most common type of headache, and they tend to be marked by a dull, mild to moderate pain that feels like a band tightening around your head. They usually last from about 20 or 30 minutes to a couple hours. Tension headaches might occur now and again, less than 15 times a month, which would mean they’re episodic. If you have them more than 15 days a month, they’re chronic.
- Eye strain, which can be caused by staring at a screen for long periods of time
- Issues with the joints and muscles in your jaw or neck
- Poor posture
Migraine. The tell-tale sign of a migraine is throbbing or pulsing on one side of your head. These headaches usually crop up with several other unpleasant symptoms, like sensitivity to sound and light, vomiting and nausea. Before or during a migraine, some people experience an aura, which is like a warning sign that can appear in a variety of ways, from visual changes like blind spots and flashes of light, to tingling on one side of the body. Migraines sometimes last a long time, ranging from hours to entire days, and they can seriously interfere with your daily life. Women are up to three times more likely than men to have these headaches.
There are many migraine triggers, such as:
- Certain beverages, like wine (especially red), other alcoholic drinks or too much caffeine
- Hormonal shifts during periods, menopause or pregnancy
- Stress or anxiety at home or work
- Changes in the weather
- Too little or too much sleep, or jet lag. When your sleep patterns change, that can trigger migraines. A 2011 study suggests that lack of REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep can bring on more painful headaches.
- Loud noises, bright lights or potent smells
- Missing a meal or fasting
- Certain foods, like salty or processed snacks, hot dogs or lunch meats made with nitrates, aged cheeses and chocolate
- The artificial sweetener aspartame
Cluster headaches. These come on hard and fast, and they’re less common than the above headaches. They often cause extreme pain around or behind one eye, and can lead to watering and redness in the affected eye, along with a drooping eyelid. You may also have a runny nose or congestion on the same side as the affected eye. These headaches earned their name because they strike in clusters—up to eight could hit in one day, with each lasting about 30 to 45 minutes. The clusters could happen for weeks at a time, or even months, and then disappear for long stretches.
The onset of this type of headache is less associated with triggers like food and stress, but once a cluster starts, drinking alcohol or smoking can make things worse.
How to Reduce Headaches
Pay attention to what triggers your headaches. It may be helpful to jot down a few notes on paper or your phone when you get a headache, including details about what sparked the pain and how long it lasted. This can help you identify the factors that typically bring on your headaches, so you know what to avoid.
Lifestyle tweaks can also cut down your headache risk. Try these tips:
- Get enough rest. Aim for at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night. It isn’t always easy, but try to go to bed and get up at roughly the same time every day.
- Ease stress. Carve out time for yoga or meditation. Limit your obligations as best you can. Build up your organization skills. Do whatever you can to subtract stress from your home and work life. Talking to a therapist or counselor can also help you pinpoint and tackle stressors or better cope with challenging circumstances.
- Sweat more. Consistent exercise, be it swimming, walking, biking or jogging, can boost your overall well-being.
- Eat mindfully. Cut back on food or drinks, like alcohol or caffeine, that can trigger headaches. Try not to miss meals, and drink lots of water.
Treatment for Headaches
There are a range of potential solutions when it comes to banishing headache pain. Some options are fairly quick and easy to access, like buying over-the-counter pain meds or scheduling an acupuncture or massage appointment. Other approaches require a talk with your doctor, like getting prescription drugs.
Here are a few treatments that might work for you:
Over-the-counter medications. Taking OTC pain relievers is often the first step toward calming headaches. Drugs like ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen and naproxen are common choices. Betr has a trio of pain relief medications, including Pain Relief (Acetaminophen), Headache Pain Relief and Pain Relief (Ibuprofen). All of these meds can help you feel better, but they work differently in your body.
Betr Pain Relief Acetaminophen is part of a category of drugs called analgesics. These prevent your brain from releasing substances that cause the sensation of pain. Betr Headache Pain Relief is made with naproxen sodium, the same active ingredient as Aleve, and can ease your headaches for 12 hours at a time. Betr Pain Relief Ibuprofen belongs to the category called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, commonly referred to as NSAIDs. These block your body from forming substances that contribute to pain, fever and swelling.
- Prescription drugs. Medications like triptans interrupt pain pathways in the brain and can ease both episodic tension headaches and migraines.
- Antidepressants or anticonvulsants. Tricyclic antidepressants can prevent migraines and tension headaches. Anti-seizure drugs might also limit these types of headaches.
- Acupuncture or massage. These alternative approaches can help you whittle away at stress and tension in the body. Massage therapy in particular can relax tight muscles in your neck, back and shoulders.
When You Should Get Immediate Care
While some headaches are run of the mill, others signal a serious issue. Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you have a severe or sudden headache paired with:
- Trouble seeing, speaking or walking
- A stiff neck
- Paralysis or weakness on one side of your body
- A fever that’s higher than 102 to 104 F
- Blurry or double vision
- Severe vomiting or nausea
When You Should Call Your Doctor
Schedule a time to check in with your health care provider if you’re having headaches that are:
- Happening more often than usual
- More severe than your typical headaches
- Don’t respond to over-the-counter meds
- Prevent you from taking part in everyday activities like sleeping, working or running errands
If headaches are derailing your days, your doctor can guide you through physical and neurological exams to identify the culprits and find solutions to help you get on with your life.
Mayo Clinic staff. (2020). Migraine.
Mayo Clinic staff. (2020). Symptoms headache.
Office on Women’s Health. (2019). Migraine.
Cleveland Clinic. (2021). Tension-type headaches.
John Hopkins Medicine. Headache.
Mayo Clinic staff. (2019). Tension headache.
Mayo Clinic staff. (2019). Cluster headache.
Cleveland Clinic. (2021). Cluster headaches.
Cleveland Clinic. (2020). Headaches.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2016). Headaches: In depth.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2019). Headache information page.
Healthline. (2018). Headache from lack of sleep? Here’s what to do.
- Durham,F. Garrett,J. Hawkins, J. Hayden, J. Campos. (2011). REM sleep deprivation promotes sustained levels of proteins implicated in peripheral and central sensitization of trigeminal nerves: role in pain chronification.
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A bad headache can ruin a perfectly good day. Headaches are incredibly common, but they’re also quite specific—believe it or not, there are more than 150 kinds. If frequent or severe headaches are making you suffer, this article can help you figure out what’s behind your head pain and how to nip it in the bud.