Headache prevention may include prescription medications, or lifestyle adjustments like massage, biofeedback, changing posture, or avoiding triggers.
While treating a headache helps to relieve the pain and tension and allow you to function, most people would prefer to prevent themselves from getting headaches rather than having to deal with one once it does occur. In many cases, headache prevention is possible. Preventive measures won’t necessarily eliminate your headaches completely, but can reduce the frequency and severity of their occurrence.
Which preventive measures work for you will depend on what type of headaches you have. Some headache prevention measures are:
• Postural adjustments
• Biofeedback or relaxation exercises
• Avoiding headache triggers
There are certain medications that can be used to reduce the frequency of headaches. A class of antidepressants called the tricyclic antidepressants can reduce the frequency of both migraine and tension headaches. Certain other medications can also be used to reduce the frequency of migraines. A type of blood pressure medication known as beta-blockers is sometimes effective, although researchers aren’t precisely sure why these work. Certain antiseizure medications can also be effective.
All of the preventive medications can have side effects, so it’s important to weigh both the risks and the benefits before deciding whether to take preventive medication for headaches. Patients must decide for themselves, in consultation with their doctors, whether the medication is worth it.
There are also other, non-drug options that can be effective in preventing headaches. Tension in the muscles of the neck and head can be caused by posture. For instance, when the head is held forward of the body, this causes a lot of tension in the muscles of the neck, which may lead to headaches. This is a common position for many people to hold while working at the computer. Many people with tension headaches may benefit from learning about posture, possibly with the help of a physical therapist or other movement professional, to help them achieve better alignment and reduce the frequency of their headaches.
Similarly, for some people, tension in the muscles of the neck and head may lead to frequent tension headaches. Massage may be effective at relieving this tension and therefore reducing the frequency of tension headaches. Massage may also be effective for reducing the frequency of migraine headaches. Research into this modality is ongoing, but because it has no side effects, it may be worth trying to see if it works for your headaches.
Similarly, relaxation exercises and biofeedback may be effective in helping people reduce tension in the neck and head muscles and reduce headache frequency. Relaxation exercises may include such exercises as progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or gentle yoga. Biofeedback uses monitors of muscle tension to help you learn how to consciously relax the muscles of your neck and head; for some patients, this can be helpful for tension headaches or migraine.
Many people have headache triggers. These may be certain foods or beverages, lack of sleep or too much sleep, bright fluorescent lighting, or many other types of triggers. Keeping a headache diary may help you to identify your triggers. Once you know what they are, avoiding your triggers as much as possible may help to prevent headaches from occurring.
There are several herbal therapies that claim to be effective at preventing migraines. Most have shown mixed results in scientific studies. If you choose to use an herb for migraine prevention, please be aware that many herbal remedies work in much the same way that prescription remedies do, so you should consider it to be a medicine that may have side effects or interact with your other medications. Tell your doctor about the herb you’re using, so he or she can check to make sure it’s safe for you.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). “NINDS Headache Information Page.” NINDS website (2015). http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/headache/headache.htm
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Migraine: Prevention.” Mayo Clinic website (2013). http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/basics/prevention/con-20026358
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Tension headache: Prevention.” Mayo Clinic website (2013). http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tension-headache/basics/prevention/con-20014295