Pinpoint what’s causing your head pain and you’ll know how best to fix it
If you can figure out what’s causing your headache, you can better figure out how to fix it.
See how to deal with your headaches, with our guide below..
If the cause is: a tension headache
This is the most common headache type and can last from minutes to days. It can be triggered by poor posture, stress and strong emotion – not just anxiety but excitement too.
How to fix it
- Sit up straight, support your lower back and don’t sit or stand in one position for long periods. See a physio or an Alexander technique practitioner for specific posture advice.
- Release tension with this relaxation technique from wellness consultant Sloan Sheridan-Williams (sloansw.com). ‘Lie still, breathe in and out slowly, and relax your muscles. Visualise the pain as a colour or number and change the colour from black and dark grey to bright whites and yellows. Or count down from 10 to one over a few minutes.’
- Take a brisk walk. Regular aerobic exercise, such as walking, cycling or swimming, can reduce the intensity and regularity of headaches, says research from US body the National Pain Foundation.
- De-stress. Keep stress under control with relaxation techniques, such as tai chi and aromatherapy.
If the cause is: Food
Failing to eat regular meals is a very common cause of headaches, but certain food types can trigger pain too. Culprits include citrus fruits and ham – which contains tyramine and nitrates, which both increase blood ﬂow to the brain. And triggers for migraine include cheese, red wine and chocolate.
How to fix it
- Keep a diary. GP Dr Dawn Harper says, ‘When symptoms start, capture what you’d been doing or eating beforehand, the severity of pain, how long the attack lasted and medication taken.’
- Research from the New York Headache Center found half of migraine sufferers have low levels of magnesium. Eat wholegrains, nuts, seeds and dark green leafy veg to help relax nerves and muscles.
- Take a painkiller with coffee. An Oxford University study found combining paracetamol with 100mg or more of caffeine helped relieve pain in 10% more people. But take care – caffeine can trigger headaches in some people.
- Drink water. Dehydration is a common trigger. Drink a glass of water every 15-20 minutes until the pain subsides.
If the cause is: Your environment
Headaches can be caused by what’s happening around you. Sounds and strong smells, the temperature and pollution – even changes in the weather – can have an impact.
How to fix it
- TV, mobile and computer screens can be aggravating, so have regular screen breaks. Follow the 20:20:20 rule – every 20 minutes, focus on something for 20 seconds at least 20 feet away.
- An indoor pot plant can soak up toxins and release humidity into the air, helping to ease head pain. Try spider, snake or rubber plants, peace lily or areca palm.
- Bright, flickering or flashing (fluorescent) lights don’t help either, so try to avoid these and consider changing to soft, yellow-toned lighting at home.
- Try essential oil. Pop some lavender or peppermint oil into a diffuser to mask strong smells – research has found both offer headache relief.
If the cause is: Fatigue
Headaches often strike when you’re tired or experiencing sleep disturbance – too much, too little, lie-ins, shift work or jet lag.
How to fix it
- Aim for seven to eight hours a night and boost sleep quality by reducing your chances of being disturbed – keep your bedroom dark, quiet and slightly cooler than the rest of your home. Natural-fibre bedding (cotton sheets, wool duvet) are breathable and better at regulating your temperature.
- Have sex! Last thing you fancy? It can lead to ‘partial or complete relief’ of head pain, say German neurologists from the University of Münster, by triggering the release of endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers.
- Forget fancy painkillers. ‘Pills with added ingredients – codeine or labelled ‘extra’ – aren’t better for headaches than paracetamol, aspirin or ibuprofen,’ explains headache specialist Professor Anne MacGregor (annemacgregor.com). ‘They can worsen symptoms and are potentially addictive.’
- Seek help if you’re taking painkillers for 15 or more days per month. Overuse can cause ‘rebound’ headaches.
If the cause is: Unknown
Pinpointing what’s causing your head pain can be tricky and it may prompt us to start thinking the worst. But it’s worth remembering that brain tumours account for less than 0.1% of people with headaches.
If you have a severe headache accompanied by neck stiffness and fever, and perhaps mental confusion, speech disorders or any numbness or paralysis, it could be a sign of meningitis. Seek medical attention immediately.
If a headache is accompanied by a sudden personality change, seizures, confusion and sleepiness, it could be encephalitis, another viral infection of the brain. Seek medical attention immediately.
Trigeminal neuralgia is a sudden, severe (shooting) pain in the face or head. It’s usually caused by compression of the trigeminal – the nerve inside your skull that transmits sensations of pain and touch from your face and mouth to your brain. See your GP if you’re worried or your pain doesn’t ease after taking painkillers and it continues for more than two days.