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Healthcare: How to handle a headache

1 Apr 2021

It comes without a warning and you are left to deal with it all alone. Headaches are, indeed, headaches! And you patiently have to go through them until the remedy you choose to undertake begins to show effect.

According to Mayo Clinic, the first step in tackling frequent headaches is determining what type of headache you have. Sometimes headaches are a symptom of another disease or condition; sometimes there’s no clear cause.

Take a close look at your headache signs and symptoms. If you experience them frequently, keeping a ‘headache diary’ might help determine your headache type. Note when your headaches occur, your symptoms, and potential triggers, such as food, stress or changes in sleep patterns.

There are many types and sub-types of headaches. Chronic daily headaches, which occur 15 days or more a month, are one sub-type. Tension-type headaches and migraines are also common sub-types of headaches. They can both be chronic, though they aren’t always. Other types of headaches include hemicrania continua (a one-sided headache that can feel like a migraine), primary stabbing headaches (which last for a few seconds and can occur several times throughout the day), primary exertional headaches (caused by exercise), chronic paroxysmal hemicranias (sharp, one-sided headaches that can cause tearing or a congested nose), medication overuse headaches (which occur from overusing pain medications for headaches for at least three months). 

Tension-type headaches

Tension-type headaches aren’t necessarily caused by emotional or psychological stress or tight muscles. The name is a holdover from the era when they were thought to be the result of some type of tension. Why these headaches occur is still unknown.

Dr Elizabeth Loder, chief of the Division of Headache in the Department of Neurology at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, notes that people with tension-type headaches don’t make frequent visits to the headache clinic. That’s probably because they can successfully manage their headaches themselves with over-the-counter pain relievers.

Tension-type headaches can:

Be felt as a tight band of pain around your head, a dull ache or pressure

Cause mild to moderate pain on both sides of the head

Vary widely in frequency

Be occasional

Occur more than 15 days a month (chronic)

Last from 30 minutes to a week


Most occasional tension-type headaches are easily treated with over-the-counter medications, including Aspirin, Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and Acetaminophen (Tylenol, others).


Migraines are another common type of headache which affect three times more women than men. Migraines typically:

Cause pain that is moderate to severe


Cause nausea, vomiting, or increased sensitivity to light or sound

Affect only one side of your head, but can affect both sides

Worsen with activity such as climbing steps

Last from four to 72 hours without treatment


Migraine treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and preventing additional attacks. If you know what triggers your migraines, avoiding those triggers and learning how to manage them can help prevent migraines or lessen the pain. 

Practical solutions for migraine

At the first sign of a migraine, take a break and step away from whatever you’re doing if possible. Turn off the lights. And relax or sleep in whatever posture suits you as migraines often increase sensitivity to light and sound.

Try temperature therapy. Apply hot or cold compresses to your head or neck. Ice packs have a numbing effect, which may dull the sensation of pain. Hot packs and heating pads can relax tense muscles. Warm showers or baths may have a similar effect.

Drink a caffeinated beverage. In small amounts, caffeine alone can relieve migraine pain in the early stages or enhance the pain-reducing effects of acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and aspirin. For some, however, drinking too much caffeine can lead to withdrawal headaches later on. 

During physical activity, your body releases certain chemicals that block pain signals to your brain. These chemicals also help alleviate anxiety and depression — two conditions that can make migraines worse.


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