When you have a headache, it’s hard to do or think of much else. Thankfully, there are tools and strategies that can help you get relief.
What works will vary from person to person, and the type of headache you have may also make a difference.
Some common types are migraine headaches, rebound headaches, tension-type headaches, cervicogenic headaches, hemicrania continua, and COVID-19 headaches.
Tension headaches affect almost 40% of people, making this the most common type.
Migraine headaches are the second most common type, affecting around 15% of people, and they can be extremely disruptive.
Below, we look at 11 things that may help relieve your headache.
1. Over-the-counter medication
For many people, taking over-the-counter pain medication provides some relief. Evidence suggests that these medications may be able to help:
However, taking over-the-counter pain medicine too often can lead to a rebound headache, also called a medication overuse headache.
For example, taking this type of medicine on more than 15 days a month for at least 3 months may increase your risk of developing rebound headaches.
If you have severe headaches or migraine headaches on more than 15 days a month, ask a doctor about whether preventive medication is right for you.
Depending on the type of headache you have, drinking water may help.
Being dehydrated can cause a headache, although the mechanisms aren’t entirely clear.
If you think dehydration might be responsible for your headache, try drinking 2–4 cups of water. The pain should go away within an hour or so.
If you have more severe dehydration, you may have to drink more, or it may take a little longer to work.
Evidence also suggests that staying hydrated may help manage other types of headaches, including headaches that:
affect the neck and shoulders, called coat-hanger headaches
are triggered by standing
are associated with certain medical procedures
Scientists don’t fully understand the relationship between caffeine and headaches.
Some studies have suggested that caffeine might relieve some people's headaches, especially in combination with pain medication.
One meta-analysis looked at how caffeine plus pain relievers affected tension headaches. It included more than 1,900 participants with episodic tension headaches from four studies.
The combination of aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine was well-tolerated by participants after 2 hours.
And this combination provided significantly more pain relief than acetaminophen alone.
Another review looked at this same combination of medication and caffeine for migraine relief and found similar results.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that caffeine can trigger headaches for some people.
4. Avoiding your triggers
The cause of a headache depends on the type, and it can also differ from person to person.
Still, there are some possible triggers that you may want to avoid, such as stress, lack of sleep, and caffeine.
Foods can also be triggers. According to a review of over 40 studies, these may trigger a headache:
processed meats, like hot dogs
alcohol, especially red wine
foods that contain monosodium glutamate
5. Hot or cold therapy
For some people, a warm bath, steamy shower, or heating pad set to low can help relieve a tension headache.
If heat does help, make sure not to use it for too long, and keep the temperature comfortable. Too much heat can make your headache worse and cause burns.
Some people with migraine find cold therapy more effective. In one study, participants with migraine headaches reported feeling 15–45% less pain 30 minutes after using a cold compress.
Certain vitamin and mineral supplements may help with headaches, according to one review.
The authors linked coenzyme Q10, magnesium, feverfew, and riboflavin (vitamin B2) supplements to a reduced frequency of migraine episodes.
However, the researchers noted that there was mixed evidence. Ultimately, they concluded that more research is needed to fully understand whether supplements help.
Multiple studies have found that massage therapy might help with migraine and tension-style headaches, though the evidence isn’t entirely conclusive.
In a recent review that included over 700 participants with migraine, researchers found that people who regularly got massages reported roughly 28% fewer migraine episodes.
The team also observed that, in the short term, massage was linked with fewer and less severe tension headaches.
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8. Herbs and spices
The data is mixed, but some studies have found possible links between herbal remedies and migraine relief.
Some evidence suggests that migraine pain may respond to certain herbs and spices, such as:
Still, the authors pointed to a lack of unbiased, high-quality studies, so more research is needed.
In one meta-analysis, researchers found that ginger may be an effective headache treatment. However, the analysis included just three studies, and each used a different form of ginger: capsules, extract, and a mixture with feverfew.
Before adding supplemental herbs or spices to your diet, talk with a healthcare professional.
For some people, certain smells can trigger headaches. But for people with migraine headaches, evidence suggests that lavender aromatherapy might help provide some relief.
Studies also link lavender aromatherapy to reduced stress levels, which could help manage tension headaches.
It may also help relieve headaches associated with kidney disease treatments, although the research is very limited.
10. Finding the right environment
A change in environment may help you get rid of a headache. Resting in a cool, dark, quiet room might relieve tension and help you relax.
Also, sensitivity to light and sound is a common migraine symptom, so this type of environment might help reduce the effect of a migraine episode.
Acupuncture may help relieve migraine headaches, tension headaches, and other types, according to a recent literature review.
The authors caution, however, that too little research has looked into the safety of acupuncture. They also suggest that some of the improvement may be due to the placebo effect.
Now, we’ll explore some long-term solutions that may reduce the risk of headaches happening in the first place.
Evidence indicates that ketogenic, low-fat, high-folate, modified Atkins, and possibly the Mediterranean diet might each help prevent migraine episodes.
Your diet may affect how often you get headaches. But diet-related headache advice is very tentative because there’s limited research, and everyone responds to food differently.
Staying physically active may also help prevent migraine attacks, according to a recent review.
More specifically, evidence suggests that aerobic activities — like swimming, jogging, biking, dancing, or anything else that gets your heart pumping — may be linked with less frequent and less severe migraine episodes.
But for some people, exercise can trigger a migraine or make it worse. Overall, it’s crucial to do what's best for your body and your specific needs.
Staying hydrated may also help prevent migraine attacks. In a study that included women with this condition, the researchers found that participants who drank more water each day reported less migraine pain, and shorter duration and lower frequency of episodes.
If you get any type of headache frequently, ask a doctor what long-term treatments may be useful. Preventive medications and mindfulness approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, might be a good option.
To help determine your triggers and convey your symptoms accurately, it can help to keep a headache diary.
Also, the National Headache Foundation is a great resource with various tools that can help you manage your headaches.
Headaches come in many forms, but they can all get in the way of enjoying life.
To ease the pain, you can try staying hydrated, testing whether caffeine helps, taking over-the-counter medication occasionally, changing your environment, or using hot or cold therapy or aromatherapy.
In the long term, some lifestyle adjustments may help reduce the severity or frequency of your headaches.
Everyone experiences headaches differently, and what works for some people may not work for others. Listen to your body to find what works best for you.
At ZOE, we know a one-size-fits-all approach to health doesn’t work. With our at-home test, we can provide you with personalized nutrition advice based on your unique gut microbiome and responses to different types of food.
To get started, take our free quiz.
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