Headache is, without question, one of the most common ailments Americans face. Nearly 90% of men and 95% of women have experienced pounding head pain. Whether it’s a weekly nuisance or a rare event, a throbbing headache can derail your plans for a productive school day. And while it’s tempting to rely on nonprescription medications for relief, experts claim such meds could be part of the problem.
“Medicines that are taken over the counter to stop an attack like aspirin or ibuprofen, if they’re taken more than twice a week, can increase the frequency of attacks,” says Stewart Tepper, M.D., professor of neurology at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. A better approach: Prevent pounding head pain before it starts with these med-free strategies:
1. Watch your diet. The link between food triggers and headaches is complicated, but experts agree that certain foods, including chocolate, cheese, artificial sweeteners, red wine and salami may precipitate headaches. “Food cravings may occur during the premonitory phase of an attack so victims mistakenly believe the food triggered the headache when, in reality, the attack had already begun,” explains Vollbracht. Certain foods can prevent headaches, too, especially those rich in magnesium like leafy greens, nuts and whole grains. Can’t stomach the healthy stuff? Take 450 to 500 mg of magnesium daily.
2. Breathe deeply. When you’re anxious or stressed, you naturally take shorter breaths and that means less oxygen (and blood) reaches your brain. Your heart rate accelerates, muscles contract and you end up with a headache. The good news: Just two minutes of relaxed, focused breathing can release tension buildup before it takes hold, says Donna Fremon-Powell, certified guided imagery therapist and certified hypnotherapist in La Habra, California. “When you breathe in, imagine gathering up any tension, discomfort or pain. Then release it when you exhale.”
3. Minimize screen time. Staring at a computer, TV or tablet for hours can strain your eyes and lead to an achy head. “People who have migraine headaches with aura (a type of headache that comes on 20-30 minutes after some sort of visual disturbance such as blurred vision, small dots, zigzagging lines, blind spots, flashes of light or other changes) are most susceptible,” says Tepper. If you must plug in, take a 10-minute break for every hour of screen time. And make sure you’re getting enough magnesium in your diet. Still can’t find relief? A headache specialist can prescribe medications to help prevent screen-related migraines.
4. Lose the fumes. In sensitive people, certain scents can lead to a killer headache. Three common culprits: gasoline, tobacco and perfume. “People with migraines are more sensitive to odors both during and between attacks,” explains Vollbracht. Even those who aren’t sensitive to scents may notice that certain fumes exacerbate their pain during the peak of a headache. Essential oils like lavender, peppermint or eucalyptus can help mask harsh odors and may prevent an attack.
5. Keep a regular schedule. You already know lack of sleep can trigger headaches, but it turns out sleeping too much is a stealth contender as well. Researchers aren’t clear on how erratic sleep cycles trigger headaches, but maintaining a “regular” schedule can minimize the pain. Regardless of the cause, the solution is simple: “Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends,” suggests Sarah Vollbracht, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and headache fellowship director at The Montefiore Headache Center.