Headaches:  what to do?  A question you may be wondering about.  So, let’s talk about headaches.  Who suffers from headaches, what are the different types, what causes them?  Should I see a doctor?  What are the different ways to treat a headache?  So many questions so, let’s find some answers.

Who Suffers from Headaches

About 90% of people suffer from headaches at some point in their lifetime.  It is the main cause for missed work and school days.  About 20% of children and adolescents suffer from headaches.  And, 70% of people who suffer are women.

What are the Different Types of Headaches

There are four major types of headaches:

1. Vascular Headaches

  • The most common type of vascular headache is Migraines.
  • Migraines are usually a severe pain on one or both sides of the head with nausea, and at times disturbed vision.
  • Women are more likely then men to have migraines
  • Another kind of vascular headache is Cluster headaches.
  • Cluster headaches cause repeated episodes of intense pain, and headaches resulting from high blood pressure.

2.  Muscle Contraction (tension) Headaches

  • Involve the tightening or tensing of facial and neck muscles.
  • Common everyday headache.
  • A dull, aching head pain, stiff muscles and tightness in the neck, shoulders, scalp and jaws.
  • Cause mild to moderate pain.
  • Tension headaches are either episodic or chronic.  Episodic headaches occur less than 15 times a month while chronic headaches happen more frequently, and for longer than three months.
  • Either one can last from half hour to a full, head-pounding week.

3.  Traction Headaches

  • A variety or organic diseases of the head can cause traction headaches.
  • Brain swelling, infection, bleeding, tumor, stress, or obstructed flow of cerebrospinal fluid.
  • Headaches can result from intracranial mass lesions such as metastatic tumors, or hematoma.

4.  Inflammatory Headaches

  • Can be symptoms of other disorders, ranging from stroke to sinus infection.
  • Inflammatory headaches can be a signal of serious disorders such as brain tumors, strokes, and head trauma.
  • Headaches caused by inflammation can include those related to meningitis, as well as resulting from diseases of the sinuses, spine, neck, ears, and teeth.

What Are the Causes of Headaches?Words related to headaches in a crossword puzzle grid with a white background.

There are several reasons why someone is experiencing a headache.  Let’s break them down below.  Although this is not a complete list of non-stress, stress or disease related reasons for a headache, they are the main reasons why most people experience a headache.


  • Lack of sleep
  • Skipping meals
  • Excessive use of alcohol or tobacco
  • A cold or the flu
  • Jaw clenching
  • Teeth grinding
  • Staying in one position to long
  • Poor posture or back pain
  • Eyestrain

A silouette picture of a girl and the word stress written beside her and a large clock background.

Stress related

  • Everyday situations
  • Demanding work schedule
  • A rough commute
  • Screaming children
  • Financial struggles
  • Relationship problems

Disease related

  • Stroke
  • Meningitis
  • Sinus
  • Aneurysms
  • Hydrocephalus (abnormal buildup of fluid on the brain)
  • Infection of the brain
  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
  • Hemorrhage (bleeding within the brain)
  • Brain tumor
  • Blood clots

When Should I See the Doctor?

You should go to the Emergency room or call 911 if you are experiencing the worst headache of your life or if you are having trouble with speech or feeling confused.  If you experience weakness, dizziness, or a sudden loss of balance, numbness or tingling, or you can’t move your body.

Also, if you experience blurry vision or blind spots.  And if you have a headache with severe nausea and vomiting, or a headache after a head injury.

If your headache is so bad that you feel you may need to see a doctor, then you should.

What are the Different Ways to Treat a Headache?

There are several ways to treat a headache, medications, self-help, massage, diet changes, and sleep.  You can also avoid triggers that cause you headaches.  Let’s talk more about each area.

MedicationsPicture of an assortment of pills, white, green and white capsules, orange round pills, and tan gel capsules.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications relieve the minor aches and pains associated with conditions such as headaches, fever, colds, flu, arthritis, toothaches, and menstrual cramps.

There are two types of OTC pain relievers: acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).

Acetaminophen is an active ingredient found in more than 600 OTC and prescription medicines, including pain relievers, cough suppressants, and cold medications.

NSAIDS are common medications used to relieve fever and minor aches and pains.  They include aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen, as well as many medications taken for colds, sinus pressure, and allergies.  They act by inhibiting an enzyme that helps make a specific chemical.

Prescription Medications

Prescription medications for pain relief include opioids and non-opioids.

WARNING:  Opioid drugs are a very powerful product and highly addictive.  Derived from opium, these drugs act by attaching to a specific “receptor” in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract.  Opioids can change the way a person experiences pain.  They are rarely used in headache treatment because of their side effects and the potential for dependency.  For more information and some startling facts on opioids visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Another class of drug, called Triptans, is the mainstay of migraine treatment.  They include Eletriptan (Relpax), Naratriptan (Amerge), Rizatriptan (Maxalt), Sumatriptan (Imitrex), Zolmitriptan (Zomig), and more.  They are available in different forms including pills, shots, or a nasal spray.

Also, a medication called dihydroergotamine (DHE), a form of ergotamine, is used to treat migraine headaches as well.  It also comes in the form of a shot or nasal spray.

If you have four or more severe, prolonged migraine headaches days each month, your doctor may suggest you try other medications to prevent the attacks.  Some of these medications such as propranolol, verapamil is also used for high blood pressure.  Or your doctor could use an anti-seizure drug like topiramate.  Your doctor will prescribe the best drug treatment for your condition.

Always follow doctor directions for using the medications prescribed to you as well as the proper dosage.  Following the proper dosage directions will prevent you from having an accidental overdose.

Self-HelpWomen doing a neck stretch by grabbing top of head and pulling to opposite side. Girl has black shorts and pink sport tank on with a tan background.

There are some other things you can try for your headache pain that you can do yourself:

  • Hot or cold compress.  Both can relieve headache pain.  The heat increases blood flow to head and neck muscles and can help relax them.  Ice reduces the sensitivity of pain nerve endings and can help override pain impulses.  Ice also reduces inflammation which increases blood flow as well.
  • Stretch your neck and shoulders.  Tension and tightness in this area could be contributing to your headache.  By doing some simple stretches you can stimulate circulation and help relax your muscles which may help relieve your headache.
  • Set up Straight.  Also, if your work requires you to sit or stay in a fixed position for long periods of time you need to get up and move every hour or two.  The better your posture the less likely you will get a headache.  So, don’t slough or hunch over when sitting or working.  Like your mother used to say, “Sit up straight in that chair”.
  • Exercise regularly.  A benefit of exercise is that it can help to fight off headache problems.  Exercise has a positive effect on brain chemistry that benefits many headache sufferers.

Massagea women getting a neck massage. She is laying on a table with a pink sheet.

Neck and shoulder massage improve circulation, relieves muscle tension, and can reduce the pain of a headache in progress.  Done regularly, massage can also help to prevent headaches.  Along with massage you can try practicing relaxation techniques.  By achieving a state of deep relaxation on a regular basis can increase your ability to handle stress, a leading contributor to tension headaches.

DietAcircular ball filled with words going every which way, like a crossword puzzle. Words to do with diet and nutrition.

If you experience diet or food related headaches, changing your diet may help.  If you notice certain foods that you eat could be causing your headaches, you should eliminate those foods.  After a period of time, you can re-introduce the foods back into your diet.  You can then see if they were causing your headaches.

Some foods that could be causing your headaches may include:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Chocolate
  • Aged cheeses
  • Raw onion
  • Ice Cream
  • Cultured dairy products (yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream)
  • Yeast breads, doughnuts, and pastries

Another thing that could be causing your headaches is food additives such as Monosodium glutamate, or MSG that is added to food to make it taste better, and Nitrates and Nitrites which are found in processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, and lunch meat.

Along with determining your food triggers for headaches you should try to keep a regular schedule for eating.  Skipping a meal is far more frequently reported as a headache trigger than even individual food triggers.

Sandra Allonen, a registered dietitian with Beth Deaconess Medical Center recommends:

  • Eat small, frequent meals
  • Stay hydrated
  • Choose whole-grain, high-fiber foods and lean proteins to slow down digestion and keep your blood sugar levels stable.
  • Get regular exercise and plenty of sleep
  • Manage stress
  • Keep a food journal.  Write down food and beverages consumed, environmental issues, plus your sleep, stress, and exercise patterns.  Allonen says, “Keep track of everything, because it’s really an individual thing.  You are your health care guardian”.

For help choosing the right diet plan see Top 10 Best Diet Plans.

SleepBlande girl sleeping in white flowered nightgown. White background.

Does lack of sleep cause headaches?  we do need to get a good night sleep in-order to stay healthy and to be at our best.  Irregular sleep patterns or changes in sleep patterns may cause headaches as well as triggering migraines.

In a large study people who slept only six hours a night on average had more frequent and more severe headaches then those who slept longer.

Although not enough sleep can trigger a headache, too much sleep can also trigger a headache.  Usually, headaches triggered by too much sleep are migraines and tension-type headaches.

Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, insomnia, and circadian rhythm disorder have been linked to people who suffer from headaches triggered from irregular sleep patterns.

By modifying your sleeping habits and/or treating your sleep disorders you could help manage your headaches.

So, if you suffer from nighttime headaches or wake up with a headache you should review your sleep habits and make any adjustments you may need to be sure you get a good night sleep.  If you suspect, you may have a sleep disorder you should see your doctor for advice and treatment.

In Conclusion

We know that about 90% of people suffer from headaches at some time in their life.  Headaches fall into four major types: Vascular, Muscle Contraction (tension), Traction, and Inflammatory.  We have learned about what caused headaches and when to see a doctor.  We went over the different types of medication you could use.  Also, we talked about several ways you can help yourself, including diet and sleep.

In addition, if you suffer from a severe headache like you never had before you need to call 911 or go to the E.R.  Otherwise, you can try out the different ways we discussed above.  If headaches last longer than a week you should go to your doctor.


Tagged on:                                         

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.