Headaches can be, well, a real headache. Knowing what causes them can help you prevent them in the first place. And knowing how to treat them can help you relieve the pain once you have one.
As a neurologist who specializes in treating people suffering from headaches, I’ve found that the most common types are migraines and tension-type headaches. But I also treat patients who have a variety of less common headache syndromes, including cluster headache, hypnic headache and primary stabbing headache.
Medication overuse, stress, diet and weight can all contribute to that unrelenting pounding and pain in your head. Avoiding using pain-relief medication for more than 10 days a month to prevent medication overuse headaches. If you find you are prone to having migraines, try eating meals on a regular basis, engaging in regular cardio-aerobic exercise, sleeping restfully and hydrating adequately to help prevent or reduce these symptoms. Also avoid poor posture such as slumping and slouching that can lead to tightness of the neck muscles, resulting in headaches.
Other self-care ideas to prevent or treat migraines include:
Eating foods that are high in magnesium.
Foods such as dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, whole grains, avocados, yogurt, bananas and dried fruit are excellent sources of magnesium. Other foods that may help prevent migraines include beef liver, lamb, yogurt, milk, mushrooms, spinach, almonds and sun-dried tomatoes.
Limiting or eliminating caffeine intake.
Caffeine is OK in moderation, meaning no more than about 200 mg, or one regular cup of coffee, per day. Caffeine is a diuretic, so any caffeine use should be matched with adequate fluid intake, including water, juice or milk.
Eliminating foods known to trigger your migraines.
A number of foods are known to trigger migraines, and we often recommend weaning some or all of these items from your diet to see if you can gain some improvement. These foods include MSG, excessive caffeine, aged cheese, processed meats with nitrates/nitrites, wine with sulfites and artificial sweeteners. Many people who suffer from migraines already know or eventually figure out what their trigger foods are through trial and error. Keeping a food and drink journal can help you identify culprits. For instance, if you tell me that red wine triggers your migraines, I’ll tell you not to drink red wine. However, red wine does not trigger migraines in all patients.
Limited but promising evidence has shown that mindfulness and yoga are effective therapies for migraine prevention and reduction. Studies elsewhere have shown that biofeedback and relaxation techniques can help relieve chronic tension-type headache and migraines. Not surprisingly, one of the most common triggers I see is weather change. Barring a move to a dry, steady climate, this is often unavoidable. I’ve seen patients actually move to warmer climates because weather is such a big trigger for them.
Not eating on a regular basis is a huge trigger for migraine. Many people often skip breakfast, which is a very important meal. If you are too busy to eat, or if you skip meals regularly, consider purchasing a supply of protein drinks to quickly ingest while on the go as a prevention measure.
And finally, you should see a doctor about your headaches when you have an abrupt change in or worsening of your headaches. You should seek emergency medical care if you develop the worst headache of your life, because it may be something more serious and possibly life-threatening, such as a brain aneurysm or a stroke.