Headache treatment depends on the type of headaches you have. Several types of medication are available, but other therapies may also be effective.
The type of treatment for your headaches depends on the cause. Treatment will be very different for a migraine than for a headache caused by a tumor. The most common causes of headaches are tension headaches and migraine headaches (cluster headaches are very similar to migraines).
Possible treatments that may be used for headaches include:
• Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
• Triptan medications
• Opioid pain relievers
• Heat or ice
• Relaxation exercises
• Treatment for an underlying abnormality (such as removal of a brain tumor, or antibiotics for an infection)
The most commonly used treatment for headache is non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil). Many people self-treat their tension or migraine headaches using these medications. While they may be effective, there are risks associated with using too much medication or using it too often. There can be side effects, such as ulcers and kidney problems. The body can also come to depend on the medication, so that when you stop taking it, you experience “rebound pain.” Therefore, while these medications are effective, it’s not a good idea to take them on a long-term basis.
Triptan medications are often prescribed for migraines, although they may also be effective for tension headaches. Triptans alter the blood flow to the brain, which can resolve a migraine. These are effective if taken during a migraine, but they may have side effects. Additionally, because they alter blood flow, people who have heart disease or are at risk for stroke can’t take triptans. Ergots are similar medications, but triptans are generally preferred.
Opioid medications are sometimes used for severe headache pain. These are medications like oxycodone. However, these have the potential to be addictive, and can also cause many other side effects. For these reasons, they’re used as a last resort.
There are also non-drug methods for treating headaches. Some headaches, especially tension headaches, may be relieved by heat or cold. A heating pad or a cold pack (or bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel) may be placed across the forehead or on the back of the neck. This can help to ease sore and tight muscles, which may relieve the headache.
Relaxation exercises may also be effective, particularly for a tension headache. Taking a break from your stressful situation to do some deep breathing, muscle relaxation exercises, and/or visualization exercises may help to release the tension in your head and neck and relieve the headache. Those who get frequent headaches may benefit from being taught these exercises by a coach or therapist.
In the rare causes where a headache is caused by a structural problem, the only way to cure the headaches will be to cure the problem. For instance, if the headaches are caused by the pressure building up inside the head because of a brain tumor, then the headaches won’t go away until the tumor is removed. If they’re caused by an infection (such as meningitis), then the only way to treat the headaches is to treat the infection with antibiotics.
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: Treatments and drugs.” Mayo Clinic website (2013). http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/basics/treatment/con-20026358
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Tension headache: Treatments and drugs.” Mayo Clinic website (2013). http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tension-headache/basics/treatment/con-20014295