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What is Your Headache Telling You (and How You Can Make It Go Away)

We’ve all heard the old saying, “A bad headache can ruin a good day.” Enter any pharmacy and you’ll find aisle after aisle lined with over-the-counter pain medications designed to ease headaches of every kind. But what happens when these medications don’t work the way you want them to or when the level of headache pain you are feeling becomes too much to bear? 

The ease with which Americans can access over-the-counter (OTC) medications actually may be making their headaches worse – not better. Using OTC medications more than 15 times per month can lead to a secondary headache. Called a medication overuse headache, it increases your original headache’s frequency and severity. 

How Pain Begins

There are more than a dozen different types of headaches. While each varies, many are capable of happening simultaneously. Headaches can originate through: 

  • Uncontrollable factors such as genetics and barometric pressure 

  • Bodily responses to dehydration, hormonal shifts, substance use (or withdrawal) 

  • Illness or trauma such as stroke, infections and other medical disorders 

While getting the occasional headache can be commonplace, the American Migraine Foundation recommends seeking out a trained medical specialist when your headaches: 

  • Increase in frequency or severity 

  • Surpass more than four headache days per month

  • Interfere with everyday life

  • Persist longer than 48 hours

  • Require special treatment, depending on health conditions or pregnancy

A Sudden Thunderclap

Some headaches may signal a more serious underlying medical condition requiring emergency attention. Thunderclap headaches are extremely severe and sudden, coming on with no warning and sometimes lasting longer than five minutes. 

While thunderclap headaches may not always pose a threat, they can signal a problem with the blood vessels in the brain or conditions such as a stroke or aneurysm. They are often accompanied by nausea, changes in speech or vision, numbness and confusion. Additionally, if you also notice fever or chills along with your headache — or if your pain is only happening on one side of your head — you should be evaluated immediately. 

Finding a Path to Relief 

No one-size-fits-all solution exists for headache prevention and treatment. To determine the best path of diagnostic care, a healthcare provider must first review your history and identify what type of headache you’re having. They will help identify what might be triggering your headaches. From there, treatment options and a plan tailored to you can be created. These may include a combination of medications, procedures and alternative medicine.

Three frequently prescribed options for medication-free (alternative) treatment include: 

  1. Relaxation therapy. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is the most common form of relaxation therapy for headache management. PMR allows you to recognize when your muscles are tense and, over time, provides you with the skills needed to relax them. It is a simple daily exercise that uses a controlled tightening and releasing of muscle groups to ease pain. 

  2. EMG biofeedback. Electromyographic biofeedback (EMG) uses electrodes placed on the forehead, jawline and shoulders to provide visual or auditory monitoring as you learn to practice muscle-relaxing techniques. 

  3. Neuromodulation. Neuromodulation devices are FDA-approved electronic medical devices that seek to stop or prevent headaches using electrical stimulation, magnets or temperature changes. While some of these devices must be placed surgically, most newer devices do not. This method has proven the most effective with migraine or cluster headaches and is praised for having minimal side effects.

Other medication alternative headache treatments include: cervical manipulation, oxygen therapy, nutraceuticals (vitamin, mineral and herbal supplementation), diet and lifestyle changes, hydration, massage, physical therapy and pain psychology.


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