What’s the Best Way to Treat a Headache?

By Korin Miller |

The answer depends on what’s causing your pain. Here’s how to find out and get relief ASAP.

older woman with a headache

Headaches are never fun. So even if you only struggle with them occasionally, it makes sense you’d want to know how to treat them ASAP.

The first step to getting relief is knowing which kind of headache you’re dealing with.

“There are two major types of headaches that you could be experiencing,” says Daniel Franc, M.D., a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California:

  • Chronic tension headache, which you’ll usually feel across your forehead, neck, and back of head.
  • Cluster headache, which can cause a stabbing feeling around one eye or shooting pain in one area of your face.

Chronic tension headaches are the most common, and are often caused by stress, poor posture, and neck strain in your sleep, Dr. Franc explains.

How to Treat a Chronic Tension Headache

If you’re struggling with a chronic tension headache, Dr. Franc recommends trying to reduce the tension in your neck through massage, acupuncture, physical therapy (if it’s chronic), or plain ol’ relaxation.

“I find that meditation and mindfulness is a particularly good intervention for chronic tension headaches,” he says.

Try adding this easy five-minute meditation to your day. Or check out our guide to eight alternative therapies that are actually worth trying, including acupuncture, massage therapy, biofeedback, and more.

When you want faster relief, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and caffeine can also help treat a tension headache, Dr. Franc says.

Just be sure to talk to your doctor before taking any new meds, even over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Many drugs are metabolized differently in seniors—meaning your body might process it more slowly or quickly than it did when you were younger—which could lead to side effects if you don’t adjust the dosage for your age.

Learn more in our guide to four types of OTC meds that may cause serious side effects.

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How to Treat a Cluster Headache

If you’re dealing with a cluster headache, you can also use pain medication to treat the problem. But in addition to the warning above, Dr. Franc notes that “overuse of over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can actually trigger chronic headaches.”

So again, it’s always best to talk to your doctor before taking OTC medications, especially if you’re regularly experiencing headaches.

Another thing to consider: your caffeine consumption. Cluster headaches can be prompted by missing your regular cup of joe or not having a cup of coffee that’s as strong as usual, Dr. Franc says.

If you suspect this is the case, try having a cup of coffee and seeing where that gets you. Or if you want to ease up on the amount of caffeine you’re having, he recommends tapering slowly to avoid the headache in the future.

Stop a Headache Before It Starts

Of course, prevention is key to making sure you’re pain-free in the first place. Simple lifestyle changes can make a big difference, says Vernon Williams, M.D., director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Management at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.

To stop both types of headaches before they start, he recommends:

If you do all of this and you’re still experiencing recurrent headaches, it’s a good idea to get checked out by a doctor, Dr. Franc says. It’s likely due to a lifestyle tweak you need to make and haven’t identified yet. But it’s best to be safe, just in case it’s something more serious.

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