We are all familiar with that terrible feeling— knowing that a headache is impending. You may have telltale signs that give you advance warning or it may come on suddenly. When it happens, you want to do whatever it takes to make it go away. And when it’s over, you want to make sure you can prevent the next one with headache prevention techniques.
Not all headaches can be avoided, but there are steps you can take to decrease the frequency of your headaches and prevent some from happening at all. If you don’t catch the headache before it starts, there are also natural remedies for headaches, which can help address the ones you’re not able to avoid.
Every headache is different and understanding what triggers yours is key to headache prevention, whether you suffer from chronic headaches or the more occasional discomfort. This article will give you tips both on how to prevent headaches and what to do if you missed the prevention window and are in pain.
What Is a Headache?
Quite simply, a headache is exactly what it sounds like—pain in any part of the head. The pain may be on one or both sides of the head, focused in a particular location, or the pain may radiate across the head and out to the jaw, neck, or shoulders. A headache may be in the form of a sharp pain, a constant throbbing feeling, a tight or squeezing feeling, or a dull ache. Some headaches appear out of nowhere while others develop gradually, and they can last anywhere from minutes to several days.
Common Types of Headaches
All headaches fall into one of two categories: primary or secondary. A primary headache is a health condition, not a symptom of another underlying disease. Secondary headaches, on the other hand, are caused by an underlying condition such as a sinus infection or a concussion for example.
Most headaches are primary headaches and these are the types of headaches this article addresses.
Such headaches include:
Tension headaches are the most common type. They are characterized by moderate pain on both sides of the head and/or in the back of the head and neck. They generally come on slowly and can fall into the category of chronic headaches, occurring as often as every day.
Cluster headaches are a rare type of severe headache. If you are suffering from a cluster headache, you likely feel a sudden burst of severe pain, usually behind one eye. This type of headache lasts 1-3 hours but can happen daily or even multiple times a day.
Headache Remedies and Prevention Tips
In order to know how to stop a headache in its tracks, you must first identify what is causing it in the first place. For most people, chronic headaches of any type are triggered by something specific.
Triggers may include:
- Alcohol, especially red wine
- Not eating enough or eating the wrong foods (i.e. specific additives)
- Caffeine withdrawal (or too much caffeine)
- Too much or not enough sleep
- Changes in weather
- Hormonal fluctuations
Most triggers are things that you have the power to change, as we will discuss below. Others, like the weather and the hormone fluctuations related to the menstrual cycle, are generally beyond your control (although there are steps you can take to prevent or lessen the severity of menstrual-cycle related headaches which will be discussed below). Regardless of what your triggers are, keeping track of them is key to headache prevention.
If you track the foods and drinks you consume, any medicines you take, the times you go to sleep and wake up, any exercise you do as well as when you get headaches, you will start to identify patterns. These patterns can help you understand why you are suffering from frequent headaches, so you can focus on how to prevent headaches.
Six Tips to Address Triggers and Avoid Headaches
1.) Reduce stress
This may sound impossible in today’s day and age where we are constantly connected, always on the go, and love to talk about how busy we are. But, if you really want to know how to stop a headache in its tracks, you need to find ways to manage and reduce the stress in your life. Avoid overcommitting your schedule, consider trying yoga or meditation, or concentrate on a hobby that you find soothing and relaxing. Anything that makes you feel calmer and less stressed out will contribute to decreasing the frequency of your headaches.
2.) Change diet
There are many aspects of diet and nutrition that could be related to headaches. For some people, foods with certain additives or ingredients are a trigger such as chocolate or some types of cheese. For others it may be alcohol, especially red wine. Still others do not drink enough water and have headaches caused by dehydration. Food allergies or sensitivities can also play a role. Consider eliminating food or drink that you suspect to be key triggers from your diet one at a time in order to find the culprit. In general, keep in mind the importance of eating clean and nutritious meals, getting regular exercise, and staying hydrated. Even simple changes can be a game-changer when it comes to headache prevention.
3.) Eliminate caffeine
While there are those who swear by caffeine as one of the more effective headache remedies (and it is even a key ingredient in popular over-the-counter migraine medication), the American Migraine Foundation recommends that migraine sufferers significantly reduce or completely eliminate their caffeine consumption. Although caffeine itself is unlikely to be the sole cause of chronic headaches, it is a risk factor and one that is relatively easy to address. It is important to note that, if you are a heavy coffee drinker, when you cut out caffeine you may experience withdrawal-induced headaches at first, but they will go away within a few days.
4.) Get some sleep
Rather than catching just one more episode of your favorite show on Netflix, going to bed a little earlier and ensuring that you get a solid eight hours of sleep can work wonders in terms of headache prevention. Try to maintain a consistent sleep/wake schedule so that your body gets used to going to bed and waking up at the same time every day regardless of whether it is a work day or the weekend or vacation.
5.) Quit smoking
While there is no proven causal link between smoking and headaches, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence and statistics that point to a connection. For example, studies have found that 90% of people who suffer from chronic cluster headaches smoke. Findings like these indicate that smoking may play a role in headaches, and quitting smoking could help reduce the number of headaches you experience every month.
6.) Take preventative medications
Particularly for migraine sufferers, sometimes the best way to prevent frequent headaches is to take daily medication. Types of medications may include beta-blockers, antidepressants, or anticonvulsants, and while they may not work for everyone, studies indicate that people who could be helped by them are not necessarily taking these medications. If you experience frequent and debilitating headaches, consider speaking to your doctor about trying a daily, preventive medication.
All of the tips above can also apply to the headaches that some women get at particular points during their menstrual cycle. The hormonal fluctuations that happen just before the period starts is often the cause of this type of headache. For some women, the suggestions above may help. Others may require other types of intervention including hormonal birth control.
How to Stop a Headache Naturally
Tracking your triggers, identifying patterns, and then taking action accordingly should help with headache prevention. Of course, nothing is 100% effective so the question then becomes—how to stop a headache that has already started?
Luckily, there are a number of natural headache remedies that can be quite effective, most of which can be done at home. If your head hurts and all you want is natural headache relief, try the following:
If you didn’t heed this advice above about how to prevent headaches, it also falls into the category of how to stop a headache. According to one study, drinking water helps provide relief to headache sufferers. If you don’t like water, try adding fruit smoothies, soups, or other high water content foods to your diet.
Use a hot or cold compress
It might take some trial and error before you determine if what you need is heat or cold, but both should be part of your repertoire of home remedies for a headache. If you have a migraine, grab an ice pack, a bag of frozen peas or wet a towel with cold water and apply it to your forehead or back of your neck. The cold will constrict the blood vessels and reduce inflammation, decreasing the sensation of pain. If your headache is a tension headache, then heat may be more effective and a warm compress can relax your muscles and bring much-needed natural headache relief.
Drink herbal tea
Herbal tea or even just warm water with some ginger powder can be effective home remedies for headache. Some research shows that powdered ginger is as effective as some medicines for improving symptoms of headaches, especially migraines.
Massage pressure points
When your head hurts, you may find yourself instinctively rubbing the back of your neck or your temples. If so, your instincts are spot-on as massaging certain areas of your head and face can help relieve tension and alleviate a tension headache. In addition to the neck and temples, other pressure points are located between the eyebrows and on either side of the bridge of the nose.
Vitamins & minerals
Among the more popular natural remedies for headaches are vitamin and mineral supplements. Low levels of magnesium are implicated in migraine headache, and vitamin B and vitamin E may be effective in treating them. By increasing intake of the above through supplements that are readily available, you just may find natural headache relief.
When to See a Doctor About Sudden, Occasional, or Chronic Headaches
Generally speaking, headaches are extremely common and usually do not require any medical intervention. However, you should check in with your doctor if any of the following apply to you:
- You have two or more headaches per week
- You take an over-the-counter pain reliever for your headaches almost every day
- It takes more than the recommended dose of pain medication to stop your headache
- The pattern of your headache frequency changes or worsens
- You have chronic headaches that leave you incapacitated
And, for any of the following symptoms or situations, you should seek immediate medical assistance for headaches that are:
- Sudden and severe
- Accompanied by fever, stiff neck, confusion, seizures, double vision, general weakness, numbness or difficulty speaking
- Are the result of a head injury
- Get worse despite rest and pain medication
How K Health Can Help
If you want to talk to a doctor about your headache, you can do so without ever leaving home. Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.