Headaches, our arch nemesis—we meet again. Instead of staying up all night Googling natural cures, try these 15 fast headache remedies. They might not cure you completely, but in the throes of a migraine, any modicum of relief is a godsend.
Headache Treatment: Medications
Just about any over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever can offer relief for non-migraine headaches, also known as tension headaches, says Jack M. Rozental, MD, PhD, a migraine specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Medications that contain only one drug (acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin) are an effective headache treatment, he says, as are those that include a combination of aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine.
For those who suffer from frequent or recurring headaches, doctors sometimes recommend prescription-strength doses of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Indomethacin, an NSAID that is available only by prescription, is “usually used for arthritis, but can also be very useful as a headache treatment,” Dr. Rozental says. “Indomethacin’s downside is that it is among the drugs most likely to cause gastric irritation,” including stomach ulcers and bleeding.
These prescription drugs are sometimes used to treat migraine headaches:
- Butalbital, a barbiturate often used in combination with acetaminophen, caffeine, aspirin, and/or codeine
- Narcotics, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, or codeine
- Butorphanol, a narcotic nasal spray
Unfortunately, the risk with many of these prescription drugs is that they can lead to substance abuse and dependence, Rozental says. Butorphanol, in particular, “should be avoided because of its very high propensity to cause dependence after even minimal use,” he explains
Frequent use of any pain reliever, including OTC drugs, can also cause what are known as rebound or medication-overuse headaches, says Rozental. To treat this type of headache, all pain-relieving medications must be stopped for at least three months. If you’re consistently taking large doses of OTC medications to treat recurrent headaches, talk to your doctor about your symptoms.
Headache Treatment: Tips to Cope
Fortunately, many headaches can be at least partially alleviated without medication, which will help minimize your need for pain relievers and reduce your risk of rebound headaches. Here are some tips for headache relief:
- Close your eyes and rest. This is an effective headache treatment for a migraine headache, and can help ease a tension headache as well. Sit in a quiet, dark room with your eyes closed and just relax for a bit. “Patients with migraine instinctively seek out a dark, quiet environment in which they can go to sleep for at least a few hours,” Rozental says. “Sleep frequently diminishes or eliminates the pain.”
- Massage your neck and temples. Rubbing your neck and temples can improve blood flow and soothe tension headaches.
- Warm up your neck Try putting a heating pad or a warm cloth around your neck and the base of your skull to ease tension headaches. If that doesn’t help, you can apply an ice pack instead to see if that brings you headache relief.
- Meditate, breathe deeply, and try to visualize a peaceful image. “Various relaxation techniques can significantly help patients who suffer from ‘muscle contraction’ headaches,” says Rozental.
- Minimize stress. If you have a bad headache, try to step away from stress, literally. Avoid noisy environments, leave work a little early if you can, or ask your partner to take care of chores or the kids.
- Watch what you eat and drink. What you put into your body can have a big impact on your headaches. Rozental advises limiting caffeine and alcohol and avoiding cigarettes. He also says regular meals are important, especially for people who get headaches from low blood sugar. “Do not skip meals, particularly breakfast,” he urges.
A headache can certainly put your activities on hold until you’re feeling better, but getting the right treatment can help you feel better, faster. Instead of trudging through your day with a headache, take time out to care for yourself. Medications can get your head to stop pounding, but a little relaxation and time for yourself can also help.