A headache is defined as pain in any region of the head. One may have a headache on one or both sides of the head. The pain can be mild or chronic in nature. Headaches are one of the most common health problems that affect most people at one time or another.
According to the World Health Organization, almost half of all adults experience a headache in any given year.(1)
Causes of a Headache
Headache causes are divided into two types:
A headache occurs due to an underlying process in the brain and can be further divided into three main categories:
The headache occurs due to an underlying medical condition.
Some of the Medical Conditions:
- Brain tumor or a brain aneurysm
- Pain from the cervical neck
- Medication overuse headache
- A meningitis-related headache
- A post-traumatic headache
- A sinus headache
- A spinal headache
- Low blood sugar
Some Other Causes of a Headache
- Excessive smoking
- Excessive drinking
- Lack of water in the body
- Poor sleep quality
- Overuse of painkillers
- Eye strain
- Neck strain
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Teeth-grinding at night
Signs and Symptoms of a Headache
As a headache is divided into different types, the signs and symptoms also vary a lot.
Tension Headache Signs and Symptoms:
- Dull and aching pain
- Stiffness around the neck and shoulder area
- Tenderness in the scalp
- Tightness or pressure across the forehead
Cluster Headache Signs and Symptoms:
- Pain behind the eyes
- One-sided pain that usually lasts for 30-90 minutes
Migraine Headache Signs and Symptoms:
- Pulsating feeling in the head
- Pain on one side of the head
- Increased sensitivity to sound and light
- Nausea and vomiting
- Possibly aura (flashes of light prior to a headache)
Rebound Headache Signs and Symptoms:
- Pain in the head, especially in the morning
- Increased irritability
- Trouble remembering important details
Thunderclap Headache Signs and Symptoms:
- Intense head pain that is short in duration
- Nausea and vomiting
Natural Ways to Get Relief from a Headache
Here are some ways to relieve a headache naturally.
1. Increase Your Water Intake
Inadequate hydration is linked to headaches.(2) A 2015 study published in the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice reports that chronic mild dehydration may trigger a headache and increased water intake can help in reducing the pain.(3)
Hence, if you suffer from dehydration and have a bad headache, then the first thing you need to do is drink some water. Continue taking small sips of water, coconut water, or ORS (oral rehydration solution) throughout the day.
Along with water, you can eat water-rich fruits and vegetables. When suffering from a headache, stay away from drinks such as alcohol, carbonated drinks, and caffeinated beverages as these can dehydrate your body.
2. Apply an Ice Pack to Your Neck
Using an ice pack is an inexpensive and effective way of dealing with a sudden-onset headache. The cold from ice helps to reduce inflammation that contributes to headaches.
Plus, it has a numbing effect on the pain. It is especially good for a migraine-related headache according to a study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.(4)
A 2013 study published in the Hawaii Journal of Medicine & Public Health reports that the application of a frozen neck wrap at the onset of a migraine headache can help in reducing the pain significantly.(5)
- Wrap some ice cubes in a clean washcloth and apply it to the back of your neck to get relief from a migraine headache.
- Or, place a clean washcloth dipped in ice-cold water over your head for five minutes.
- Repeat the process several times.
Alternatively, you can use a bag of frozen vegetables as a cold compress. Within half an hour, you will feel some relief.
3. Try Heat Therapy
If you are having a headache due to too much stress or tension in life, try heat therapy. It has been found that applying a heating pad to your neck and shoulders can help relax the muscles, and this, in turn, reduces the pain.(6)
Heat relaxes tense muscles, thus alleviating the throbbing pain.
- Wrap a hot water bag in a washcloth and apply it to the back of your neck for 10-15 minutes. If needed, repeat the application.
- You can also take a hot shower directing the water onto the back of your neck. After the shower, close the lights of your bedroom and try to sleep.
4. Consume Ginger
Ginger can help reduce inflammation of the blood vessels in the head, thus providing relief from a headache. It has been found that ginger may exert abortive and prophylactic effects in a migraine headache without causing any side effects.(7)
A 2014 study published in Phytotherapy Research found that ginger powder was equally effective in the treatment of common migraine attacks as compared with sumatriptan (conventional medication used to treat migraine pains has a better side effect profile than sumatriptan).(8)
- Mix equal parts of ginger juice and lemon juice. Consume it once or twice a day.
- Another option is to apply a paste of 1 teaspoon of dry ginger powder and 2 tablespoons of water on the forehead for a few minutes.
- You can also boil ginger powder or raw ginger in water and inhale the vapor.
- You can chew one or two pieces of crystallized ginger candy.
5. Massage Your Head with Peppermint Oil
Peppermint contains menthol that helps open up clogged blood vessels that cause headaches. It also has an analgesic effect that aids in the reduction of headaches.
According to a study published in Cephalalgia, peppermint oil, when applied on the temples and forehead, reduces pain sensitivity and relaxes the muscles.(9)
A 2016 study found that solutions of 10% peppermint oil in ethanol are effective in the treatment of tension-type headaches in adults and children above 6 years.(10)
- Mix 3 drops of peppermint essential oil in 1 tablespoon of almond oil, olive oil, or just water. Massage your forehead and temples with it. You can also put crushed fresh peppermint leaves on your forehead.
- Alternatively, you can prepare a steam treatment by adding a few drops of peppermint essential oil to a small pot of boiling water. Inhale the steam for a few minutes.
6. Sniff on Lavender Oil
Simply smelling the soothing scent of lavender essential oil can be of great help in relieving tension headaches.
According to a 2013 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, lavender oil possesses analgesic (pain-relieving) properties.(11)
Research suggests that it can also help improve migraine symptoms. In a 2012 study published in the European Neurology Aromatherapy, researchers found that using lavender essential oil is highly effective in treating migraine headache.(12)
- Put a few drops of lavender essential oil on a tissue and smell it. You can also add 2 drops of lavender oil to 2 cups of boiling water and inhale the steam.
- Another option is to mix 2 or 3 drops of lavender essential oil in 1 tablespoon of carrier oil, such as almond oil or olive oil, and massage your forehead with it.
7. Rosemary Oil Massage can Provide You Relief
The rosmarinic acid in rosemary oil has soothing and anti-inflammatory properties that help treat a headache. According to a 2013 study published in Food Chemistry, rosemary has been used as medicine to treat headaches owing to its anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties.(13)
In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Korean Biological Nursing Science, it was found that a combination of rosemary, basil, lavender, and rose essential oils significantly reduced headaches and anxiety in the subjects.(14)
- Simply massage your forehead and temples with a few drops of rosemary oil mixed with 1 tablespoon of carrier oil.
- Alternatively, make herbal tea by boiling 1 teaspoon of crushed rosemary leaves and 1 teaspoon of crushed sage leaves in a cup of water. Cover it while boiling and then let it steep for 10 minutes. Let the tea cool to room temperature, and then drink it.
- You can have this herbal tea two to three times a day. If both the herbs are not available, you can make the tea with either of the herbs alone.
8. Acupressure can be Beneficial
Acupressure is one of the most popular forms of Chinese medicine. In this technique, pressure is applied with the fingers and hands to specific acupoints in the body. This helps reduce pain and other symptoms.
According to a 2014 study published in Pain Management Nursing, acupressure is an effective alternative therapy for people in pain from a chronic headache and other traumatic pains.(15)
A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine suggests that a month of acupressure treatment is effective in reducing chronic headache as compared with muscle relaxant treatment for a month. In this study, trigger points BL2, GV20, GB20, TH21, and GB5 were used most commonly.(16)
For acupressure, it is recommended to get it done by or learn from an expert to reap the benefits.
9. Up Your Magnesium Intake
If you are a migraine patient, adding magnesium to your diet can be effective in dealing with frequent headaches.
Magnesium deficiency has been linked to headaches and migraines. In fact, a 2015 study published in Nutrients reports that low levels of magnesium have been associated with a number of chronic diseases, including a migraine. (17)
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Neural Transmission reports that magnesium deficiency may be present in up to half of migraine patients, and magnesium intake can help.(18)
- To ensure your body has enough magnesium, eat foods rich in this mineral, such as almonds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, peanut butter, oatmeal, eggs, and milk.
- You can also take magnesium supplements but consult your doctor first, as magnesium can be dangerous if taken without supervision. In some people, magnesium supplements can cause digestive side effects such as diarrhea.
10. Focus on Physical Activity
Another simple yet highly effective way to deal with headaches is to exercise on a daily basis. Being physically active can help reduce the frequency and severity of headaches.
In a 2011 study, it was concluded that exercise can be an option for some preventative treatment of migraine in patients, especially those who do not benefit from or do not wish to take medicines on a daily basis.(19)
Another 2013 study published in Current Pain and Headache Reports, mentions the positive impact of exercise on migraine management.(20)
When it comes to physical activity, 30 minutes of brisk walking or jogging can help a lot. Also, you can opt for cycling, swimming, yoga, or aerobics.
When to See a Doctor
As frequent headaches can be a symptom of a serious health condition, it is recommended to see a doctor. A proper diagnosis will help rule out the possibility of a serious health problem.
Also, see a doctor if you experience a sudden, severe headache or a headache accompanied by symptoms such as:
- high fever
- stiff neck
- trouble seeing, speaking or walking.
People often use over-the-counter medicines or prescription painkillers to get relief from headaches. But there are many natural remedies that can treat your headache quickly and easily.
- You can extract mint juice from a handful of mint leaves and apply it on your forehead and temples to treat a headache.
- Put three or four fresh basil leaves in a cup of boiling water and let it simmer for a few minutes. Add a little honey (optional) and then sip the tea slowly.
- Chewing some fresh basil leaves or massaging your forehead with basil oil mixed with some base oil can also help a lot.
- Both apples and apple cider vinegar can provide relief from headaches.
- Practicing meditation can also help reduce the frequency of headaches and improve pain tolerance.
- If you have the habit of grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw, try to wear a mouth guard at night.
- Eat at regular intervals to prevent drops in blood sugar, which can result in headaches.
- Have a cup of strong coffee when suffering from a headache as caffeine reduces blood vessel swelling.
- Alcohol can trigger migraines; hence, it is advisable to limit alcoholic drinks.
- Sleep deprivation can cause headaches in some people; hence try to get 6-7 hours of sleep daily.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Ramon Rodriguez, MD (Neurologist)
How do you know if your headache is serious?
Headaches are very common, and while most headaches do not have major implications and are benign, the presence of fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, changes in vision, weakness or changes in body sensation could suggest a serious headache.
In a case like this, I recommend a patient to have an MRI of the brain to assess in detail whether there might be any changes consistent with inflammatory disorders in the brain or brain vessels. Another headache that can be serious is any headache in a person older than 50 years with no previous history of headaches.
Can hormonal imbalances lead to headaches?
Yes, hormonal changes can be associated with headaches. Fluctuating levels of hormones, such as estrogens and progesterone, may trigger headache in females.
Another headache that can be attributed to hormonal imbalance is the catamenial migraine, defined as migraine headaches that can begin 2-3 days before the onset of the menstrual cycle and may last up to three days after the menstrual cycle. Paying careful attention to the cyclic nature of the symptoms can help with the diagnosis.
How can you identify if the headache is caused by high or low blood pressure?
This is a very interesting question. Let’s begin with high blood pressure headache. While headaches are not a typical manifestation of high blood pressure, when a headache occurs secondary to high blood pressure, it raises the concern for malignant hypertension. Blood pressure so elevated might be associated with other conditions such as heart attacks or strokes, besides headaches.
Low blood pressures are typically not associated with headaches but can be associated with dizziness, especially upon standing and possibly fainting.
How can we differentiate between a regular headache and a migraine?
Migraines are more popular than what people tend to believe. The typical migraine headache has three phases: premonitory phase, when the person feels they are going to have a “migraine or headache day”. It sometimes consists of changes in mood or irritability.
Then, the painful phase occurs, where the headache is typically unilateral, throbbing, behind the eye, associated with nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light or sound, and the patient typically prefers to stay in a dark room.
After the painful phase (headache) is over, patients may suffer a postdrome, which can be associated with fatigue and malaise even for a day or two after the resolution of the headache. Some migraines can have a little variability form the description provided, but most of them are associated with it.
A regular headache tends to be all over the head or may be triggered by muscle spasms. I recommend an evaluation with a neurologist because advances in medicine have provided information about the triggers and etiologies of many headache syndromes, and proper assessment can help choose the correct treatment.
What happens to the brain during a headache?
As strange as it may sound, when a person has a headache, it is not typically the brain what hurts, but the vessels and muscles surrounding the brain that irritates the nerve terminals and this is what causes the pain. Many theories exist about what causes it, including inflammation and dilation of the vessels.
Can constant headaches be a sign of a brain tumor?
It could be. A person with a headache that is not improving with medications and continues to persist must be evaluated to rule out a structural lesion such as a brain tumor or checked for other conditions that may cause either elevated or decreased intracranial pressure.
Please provide some additional tips on how to deal with a headache for the benefit of our readers.
When a person suffers from headache, the most important is to pay attention to triggers of headaches. Unfortunately, most people don’t pay attention to the particular situations that provoke a headache, and many times the solution to make the problem better is there itself. For example, stress, sleep deprivation, hunger, certain smells, some medicines, and even certain foods might be the headache trigger. Frequently, avoiding exposure to these issues can be all that is needed.
When a headache occurs, try to position yourself in a dark room, quiet and even try to take a nap. Sleep is one of the best treatments for headaches. Avoid stressors. I know this is easier to be said than done, but small changes may create a long term impact.
Medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be good first choices, keep a journal of the time you are having headaches, situation and things you might believe can be triggers and share with your doctor. For those where a headache has a change in nature, brain imaging is advised.
About Dr. Ramon Rodriguez, MD: Dr. Rodriguez is board-certified neurologist with extensive experience in clinical care, research and education. He has traveled the world teaching other doctors and students about the proper diagnosis of neurological disorders and conducting research ethically.
He has been awarded multiple accolades for his teaching skills, for his bedside manners, and providing compassionate care to patients with neurological disorders.
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