Headaches & Migraines

Understanding Headache Pain

Headache pain can start in different structures in the head. The brain itself doesn't hurt, but other parts of the head do. Headache is a common symptom of illness, such as a cold or the flu. At other times, headaches occur without seeming to be connected to any illness. Very rarely are headaches a sign of a serious medical problem.

Self-Care for Headaches
Most headaches aren't serious and can be relieved with self-care. But some headaches may be a sign of another health problem like eye trouble or high blood pressure. To find the best treatment, learn what kind of headaches you get. For tension headaches, self-care will usually help. To treat migraines, ask your doctor for advice. It is also possible to get both tension and migraine headaches. Self-care involves relieving the pain and avoiding headache "triggers" if you can.

Ways to Reduce Pain and Tension

  • Apply a cold compress or ice pack to the pain site.
  • Drink fluids. If nausea makes it hard to drink, try sucking on ice.
  • Rest. Protect yourself from bright light and loud noises.
  • Calm your emotions by imagining a peaceful scene.
  • Massage tight neck, shoulder, and head muscles.
  • To relax muscles, soak in a hot bath or use a hot shower.

Use Medications

  • Aspirin or aspirin substitutes, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, can relieve headache. Remember: Never give aspirin to anyone 18 or younger.

Track Your Headaches

  • Keeping a headache diary can help you and your doctor identify what's causing your headaches.
  • Note when each headache occurs.
  • Identify your activities and the foods you've eaten 6–8 hours before the headache began.
  • Look for any trends or "triggers."

Call Your Doctor If You Have:

  • A headache that lingers after a recent injury or bump to the head.
  • A fever with a stiff neck or pain when you bend your head toward your chest.
  • A headache along with slurred speech, changes in your vision, or numbness or weakness in your arms or legs.
  • A headache for longer than 3 days.
  • Headaches often, especially in the morning.

What Are Migraine and Tension Headaches? 
Although there are several types of headaches, migraine and tension headaches affect the most people. When you have a headache, it isn't your brain that's hurting. Your head aches because nerves in the bones, blood vessels, and muscles of your head are irritated. These irritated nerves send pain signals to the brain, which identifies where you hurt and judges how bad the pain is.

Is It a Migraine?
Migraine is a throbbing pain felt on one or both sides of the head. You may feel nauseated. This headache may also be associated with changes in sight or sensation (aura). The pain may last for 4 to 72 hours. Afterward, you may feel shaky for a day or so.

Is It a Tension Headache?
This type of headache is usually a dull ache or a sensation of pressure on both sides of the head. It may be associated with pain or tension in the neck and shoulders. The pain may not have a definite beginning or end. It may come and go, or seem never to go away.

When to Call the Doctor

  • Call your doctor for headaches that occur along with any of these symptoms:
  • Sudden, severe headache that is different from your usual pain
  • High fever along with a stiff neck
  • Ongoing numbness or muscle weakness
  • Loss of vision that persists for several hours or outlasts the headache
  • Pain following a head injury
  • Convulsions, or a change in mental awareness

Preventing Migraine Headaches: Triggers
The first step in preventing migraines is to learn what triggers them. You may then be able to control your triggers to avoid or reduce the severity of your migraines.

Be aware that you may have more than one trigger, and that some triggers may work together. Common migraine triggers include:

  • Food and nutrition. Skipping meals or not drinking enough water can trigger headaches. So can certain foods, such as aged cheese or sausage.
  • Alcohol. Red wine and other alcoholic beverages are common migraine triggers.
  • Chemicals. Scents, cleaning products, gasoline, glue, perfume, and paint can be triggers. So can tobacco smoke, including secondhand smoke.
  • Emotions. Stress can trigger headaches or make them worse once they begin.
  • Sleep disruption. Staying up late, sleeping late, and traveling across time zones can disrupt your sleep cycle, triggering headaches.
  • Hormones. Many women notice that migraines tend to occur at a certain point in their menstrual cycle. Birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy may also trigger migraines.
  • Environment and weather. Air travel, changes in altitude, air pressure changes, hot sun, or bright or flashing lights can be triggers.

Avoid triggers if you can. For example, stay clear of alcohol and foods that trigger your headaches. Use unscented household products. Keep regular sleep habits. Manage stress to help control emotional triggers.

Change your behavior at times when triggers can't be avoided. For example, make sure to get enough rest and drink plenty of water while you're traveling. Make sure to carry a hat, sunglasses, and your medications. Be alert for migraine symptoms so you can treat a migraine early if it happens.

Migraines and Cluster Headaches
Migraines and cluster headaches cause intense, throbbing pain on one side of the head. With a migraine, you may have nausea and vomiting and be sensitive to light and sound. You may also have warning signs, such as flashing lights or loss of vision, before the pain starts. Cluster headaches recur in groups for days, weeks, or months. The pain is centered around or behind one eye. Migraines and cluster headaches can have many causes.

To help prevent migraines and cluster headaches:

  • Avoid aged cheeses, nuts, beans, chocolate, red wine, or foods that contain caffeine, nitrates, and MSG.
  • Don’t work in poor lighting.
  • Reduce stress as much as you can.
  • Get plenty of sleep each night.
  • Exercise regularly under your doctor’s guidance.

To relieve the pain:

  • Stay quiet and rest.
  • Use cold to numb the pain. Wrap ice or a cold can of soda in a cloth. Hold it against the site of pain for 10 minutes. Repeat every 20 minutes.
  • Avoid light. Wear dark glasses, turn out lights, and close the curtains. When outdoors, wear a brimmed hat.
  • Drink lots of fluids. Sip caffeine-free flat soda to help relieve nausea.

What Is Referred Pain?
Referred pain has its source in one place but is felt in another. For example, pain behind the eyes may actually be caused by tense muscles in the neck and shoulders. This means that the place that hurts may not be the part of the body that needs treatment.


 Signs of Tension Headache
Signs of Migraine

Dull pain or feeling of pressure in a tight band around your head

Throbbing pain on one or both sides of your head

Pain in your neck or shoulders

Nausea or vomiting

Headache without a definite beginning or end

Extreme sensitivity to light, sound, and smells

Headache after an activity such as driving or working on a computer

Bright spots, flashes, or other visual changes


Pain or nausea so severe that you can't continue your daily activities

See the National Headache Foundations "Complete Headache Chart".