How to head off headache pain

A headache strikes most of us at one time or another. Other than prescription or over-the-counter pain medications, what else can a person in pain do when a headache happens?

Exercise: When you're hit by a headache, your first impulse might not be to hop on the treadmill or to ride your bike. But if you get your body moving, you're bound to feel the impact of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers. Endorphins can ease an aching head by both boosting the mood and reducing the sensation of pain. Aerobic exercise will help with the endorphin rush, while stretching exercises will target tight or tender muscles. Regular exercise is the best way to go to help with headaches.

Relax: Ahhh, that's more like it. A little R&R is good for a headache, right? It is, especially if it's active rest and relaxation. Take a 20-minute break in your favorite comfy chair and try out a couple of tension-taming techniques. Try progressive muscle relaxation, the practice of tensing one muscle group (e.g., arms, legs, abdomen, etc.) at a time for 10 to 15 seconds each and then releasing it. Or try a breathing exercise, beginning with a deep inhalation, holding your breath for 10 seconds, and then a long exhalation. Put a hand on your belly and feel it move in and out with each breath.

Compress: Headache pain set off by muscle tension may respond well to a hot or cold compress. The compress will numb, dull the sensation of pain, and help relax tension in tight muscles. Apply an ice pack wrapped in cloth, hot water bottle, or heating pad to sore neck and shoulder muscles.

Hide: If you're at work when a headache hits, it can be hard to escape the pain and its triggers. Yet a brief break or quick getaway may be just what you need. If eyestrain from computer work seems to be to blame, look away from your screen for a few moments or close your eyes. Certain types of headache can lead to light sensitivity, so seek a dark, cozy spot to rest for a few moments. Go sit in your car with the seat back and drape a sweater or cloth over your eyes.

Rub: Relieve muscle pain with a self-massage TLC. Use your fingertips to gently massage your temples, scalp, neck, and shoulders. Lightly squeeze and rub the outer edge of your ear between your thumb and index finger. Move gradually from the top of the ear down to the earlobe. Tug softly on your earlobe a few times. Repeat or switch to the other ear. There's also a point on the palm of the hand, sometimes called "Union Valley," that's thought to soothe headaches. You'll find it at the point where your thumb meets your palm. With the index finger and thumb of the opposite hand, give the spot a mild squeeze and hold for 30 seconds. Switch hands and repeat if you'd like.

Unclench: Bruxism is the grinding or clenching of the teeth, and it puts pressure on the muscles and tissues around the jaw, which can trigger symptoms including headaches. Notice when you tend to tighten your jaw and remind yourself to relax. If you think your jaw may be to blame for your headache, take a break from hard foods - nuts, candies, tough meat - and refrain from gum-chewing.

Eat: A number of headaches can be blamed on skipped meals, fluctuations in blood sugar, and eating certain trigger foods. Avoid the pain by eating plenty of protein and fiber and by pinpointing which foods seem to prompt headaches for you. Among the most common headache-triggering treats are alcohol, caffeine, MSG, and artificial sweeteners.

Drink: Dehydration has been known to cause a headache, too, so drink plenty of water. As noted, caffeine can initiate headaches in some people, especially if they drink more than 2 to 3 cups of coffee daily. But the caffeine question is a tricky one since it can also help to soothe headaches; it turns up on the ingredient list of some pain medications and boosts the effects of others. Take note of your own reactions to caffeine to figure out if it's a headache helper or a trigger for you.

From time to time, a headache can be a signal of a more serious underlying condition or issue. Talk to your doctor if headaches occur more than 3 times per week, if you take a pain reliever on most days or have had to up your dosage to find relief, or if the pattern or severity of your headaches has changed.

Seek emergency medical attention if a headache follows a head injury, is sudden and severe, is accompanied by a fever, weakness, confusion, seizure, or double vision, or if the pain gets worse despite interventions.

The contents of this health site are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition.

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