Pull the Trigger
Some of the foods that are known to trigger migraines include coffee or caffeine, wines, cheese, smoked meats, sugar, chocolate and anything with the chemical MSG. If you're prone to headaches and regularly indulge in these foods, eliminate them one by one from your diet to see if you can find the link between what you put in your mouth and what you feel in your head.
Same goes for some of the other triggers. For example, if your migraines might be caused by fluctuations in estrogen, talk to your doc about stabilizing medications that have a lot of estrogen, such as birth control pills—several are available that cycle only four times a year; Seasonique and Seasonale are two common ones. For once-yearly periods, consider Lybrel.
While you can treat your headaches with pain meds, the better course of action is to find the cause and stop them from occurring in the first place.
Stop the Pain
For many people, the natural reaction when they experience pain (after yelping) is to reach for the pill bottle. And that's okay. Here are your over-the-counter choices: ibuprofen, aspirin and medications that are marketed for migraines (they include acetaminophen, aspirin and caffeine, which are actually as effective as Imitrex can be).
But if OTCs don't work, your doc may opt for a prescription-strength version of the same drug or may recommend a popular class of drugs called triptans, like sumatriptan or rizatriptan (an older version of drugs called ergots are cheaper, but they're not considered as effective and have more major side effects).
Stop It Early
Suffering may have been something that got you a merit badge in the Middle Ages, but prolonging head pain today leads you to more head pain. The neurons that respond to pain are like patrons at a free food buffet; they come in waves. If the pain can be stopped early, you close the door on the mad rush of neurons being activated in an ugly way and you gain more control over your pain.
Many people who experience headaches fall into a dangerous trap: You have a headache, so you take pain medication. Fine, but if you stay on it too long, you set yourself up for rebound headaches when you try to withdraw from the medication. You need to limit your pain meds (including OTCs) to less than three days in a row or 10 pills total. Any more than that, and you increase your risk of experiencing a rebound headache.
Try a three-day detox with no pain medication to reset your system; exercise also helps, since the natural endorphins you get from exercise can counteract the pain.
There are some topics in medical school that students never revisit again once they learn about them. That's true for headaches: Once the ins and outs and the basic treatment for headaches are presented, those treatments are typically never discussed again.
So what? Well, that points to the fact that many docs can get caught in a diagnostic rut when dealing with people whose heads hurt. If you're experiencing headache pain that changes your life, then you need to see a headache specialist—someone who has the most current treatments and insight available. Having fewer than five headaches a year is about average. If you're continually sidelined because of them, you really ought to have your head examined. If you have an excruciating headache—the worst of your life—you may need a CT scan to be sure your noggin is okay.
Strengthen Your Neck
Headache pain can come from weakness or spasms of the neck muscles—you feel the pain in your upper back and it goes to your lower neck, then upper neck, as progressively weak muscles compensate for too much computer or bridge time. If the muscles of your upper back are sore, it may be weakness of the trapezius muscle. Getting symptomatic relief and taking analgesics so you can exercise is the first order of business.
Strengthening that area takes five minutes three times a week for 10 weeks to reduce such pain by more than 80 percent. Rare types of headaches arise as referred pain from arthritis of small joints between the vertebrae of the neck called facet joints. Exercise, analgesics and sometimes nerve blocks are required to eliminate this type of headache.
Sweat It Out
Walking, swimming and biking aren't just good for your heart health, your waistline and your sexual magnetism. Regular aerobic exercise also means that you'll have less regular headaches. How? It helps relieve stress and increases the levels of painkilling endorphins. Similarly, yoga, stretching and meditation also help reduce tension and thus relax the chemical wackiness that can cause headaches.