Tips and tricks for dealing with headaches without painkillers
Headaches can catch you off guard.
They can be down to many things – from stress to dehydration – and can come on anywhere and at any time.
Dr Steve Allder, a consultant neurologist at Re:Cognition Health, explains: ‘There are many different causes for headaches including neurological, physiological and psychological factors.
‘However, the vast majority (99%) are primary headaches such as a migraine and tension-type headache – meaning there is no additional underlying cause.’
There are a number of ways everyday headaches and migraines can be treated.
But it’s worth pointing out that if a headache keeps persisting, or you think it might be related to something else, it’s important to speak to a doctor.
For treating migraine or tension headaches, experts have recommended the following tips and tricks:
Dr Steve explains that relaxation techniques may be effective for preventing or improving a headache, as deep relaxation can help reverse some of the tension and physical responses that trigger headaches.
He says: ‘All forms of relaxation work through improving the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system.
‘For example, deep breathing activates the parasympathetic branch – which changes the body’s response to adrenaline, and other stress hormones, which can be responsible for triggering a headache.’
When we exercise, our bodies release endorphins which are natural pain killers – so these may help alleviate pain from a headache.
Dr Steve says: ‘Exercise also helps reduce stress and improve sleep, which are both common triggers for headaches.
‘Don’t forget to keep hydrated and drink plenty of water as dehydration can exacerbate the pain – and don’t overdo it, especially in the heat.’
Sit in a darkened room
Those who suffer with migraines may already be familiar with the dark room technique – but this may prove useful for everyday headaches, too.
Dr Steve continues: ‘Relaxing in a dark room may be beneficial for some types of headache – especially when sensitivity to light (photophobia) is a trigger.
‘It is thought that light can trigger headaches or make them worse, as during a migraine the brain becomes more sensitive light and noise, so reducing these inputs helps the brain reset itself.’
Identify and avoid food triggers
Some people have food triggers that can give them headaches – so keeping a food diary can help to pinpoint any culprits.
Dr Sarah Brewer says: ‘Keep the diary for long enough to cover three migraine attacks and look for patterns – trigger foods are usually eaten 24 to 48 hours before a migraine occurs.’
Foods that are most common for this include spices, milk, cheese, chocolate, German sausages, seafood, wine, coffee, garlic, citrus fruit, fried foods, tomatoes, nuts and seeds – as well as any foods containing additives.
Cut back on alcohol
Dr Sarah Brewer adds: ‘Red wine and spirits are well-known migraine triggers, and it now seems that alcoholic drinks, in general, can trigger a headache for around one in three people with migraines.
‘The effect is most likely due to direct toxicity to brain cells rather than through changes in blood vessel dilation. If your diary shows an association, it’s worth giving up altogether.’
Experts say if you’re having long gaps without food, this could be contributing to a migraine.
Dr Sarah Brewer stresses: ‘Missing meals is a common migraine trigger, and is related to stress responses from low blood glucose levels.
‘One survey of 123 people who experience migraines found that fasting was one of the most common triggers.
‘Aim to eat regularly and have a healthy snack, such as fruit, every two to four hours.’
Top up your vitamin D
‘There is growing recognition that vitamin D receptors in the brain may influence mood and headaches,’ adds Dr Sarah.
‘When vitamin D levels are low, taking supplements to correct the deficiency can reduce the number of migraines.’
Take magnesium supplements
Dr Sarah also says that magnesium is involved in the regulation of blood vessel dilation and low magnesium intake can be associated with migraine headaches.
She continues: ‘Trials show that taking magnesium supplements can reduce migraine attack frequency and severity significantly more than placebo, and this approach is particularly beneficial for preventing migraine without aura.’
Headaches can often be caused by dehydration, so be sure you’re drinking plenty of water. In fact, this should really be the first port of call.
Superintendent pharmacist Hussain Abdeh says: ‘If you are finding it hard to concentrate and/or have a throbbing headache, it could simply be that you have not had enough water that day.
‘So, making sure you stay hydrated is an easy way to avoid and diminish headaches.
‘If you feel a headache coming on, get yourself a glass of water and sip it slowly; this may be all it takes to relieve your pain.’
Release any tension on your head
It might sound obvious, but simple things could be giving you a headache – like a tight hairstyle.
Hussain continues: ‘If you have a hairstyle that ties or holds your hair tightly, such as a tight ponytail or headband, this can cause a headache by compressing the scalp.
‘Try loosening your ponytail or taking the headband off if this is the case, it may help to ease the pressure in your head and stop the headache.’
Take hourly breaks when staring at screens
Too much screen time can cause all kinds of health problems, including headaches. So taking regular breaks can help combat them.
Dr Earim Chaudry, from men’s health platform Manual, explains that eye strain and eye fatigue (from screens) can both trigger a headache.
Also, be sure any glasses are still right for your eyes.
Improve your posture
Dr Earim Chaudry adds that many don’t realise that having poor posture can also trigger headaches.
He adds: ‘Tension in your upper back, neck and shoulders can lead to a headache and, typically, the pain throbs in the base of the skull and sometimes flashes into the face – especially the forehead.
‘Ideally, you want to avoid slumped shoulders, sitting in one position for a long period of time and to help reduce headaches, take short, regular walks.’
Headache red flags:
Dr Stuart Sanders, a GP at The London General Practice, has identified some headache ‘red flags’ – AKA, when it’s time to talk to a GP:
- Unaccustomed very severe headache
- Sudden onset headache, described as ‘thunderclap’
- Persistent vomiting
- Neck pain with or without stiffness
- Loss of consciousness
- Loss of use of a limb
- Raised temperature
Dr Sarah Brewer adds that the International Classification of Headache Disorders divides headache into three categories, so it’s worth knowing which type applies to you.
She explains: ‘Primary headaches, which are not associated with another underlying health condition and include tension-type headache, migraine, cluster headache, and headache caused by a cold-stimulus (e.g. eating ice cream), or exercise – including sexual activity.
’Secondary headaches, which are associated with an identifiable underlying medical cause such as trauma, medication overuse, vascular disorders (stroke, giant cell arteritis), infections such as meningitis, high blood pressure, sinusitis or tumours, for example.
‘Then there is a third type of headache and facial pain known as painful cranial neuropathies which involves abnormal nerve sensation such as trigeminal neuralgia. This complex condition involves other symptoms not just headaches. Disturbed vision, feeling sick, light sensitivity and tingling in the arms are a few common symptoms that occur. It is thought that people are genetically predisposed to migraines and unfortunately there is not cure.
‘If you experience recurrent headaches, it’s important to have a medical assessment to identify the underlying cause, as different types of headache need different treatments.’
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