The best advice for handling a headache might seem to be some variation of "Just drink some water, pop a pill, and deal with it," but unfortunately it's not always that easy. The Food and Drug Administration warns that regular use of common over-the-counter pain relievers may increase your odds of experiencing a heart attack, stroke, and bleeding of the stomach.
"The good news is that most people can get rid of headaches without taking drugs," says Alexander Mauskop, MD, director of the New York Headache Center and professor of clinical neurology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. "There are many effective non-drug options."
But first things first: Nothing can save you from the headache-inducing effects of an unhealthy lifestyle. Some of the most common triggers of both migraines and tension-type headaches are stress, insufficient sleep, and poor eating habits.
In addition to the remedies below, Dr. Mauskop advises headache sufferers get at least seven hours of sleep each night, find ways to manage stress, minimize sugar in their diets, and avoid skipping meals, which can cause blood sugar fluctuations that in turn can trigger head pain.
1. Tense up — then relax.
We often don't notice the tension building in our bodies throughout the day until a full-blown headache hits, says Mauskop. We might hold our breath when we're stressed, or we have chronic tightness in shoulders, neck, or face. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) teaches people to notice these signals so they can keep tension in check.
In an October 2013 study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, participants who practiced PMR had reductions in the severity, frequency, and duration of their headaches by the time of their follow-up assessment four weeks later.
To try it, lie down in a quiet place and, starting with your head and moving progressively down to your toes, tighten each part of your body for a few seconds, then release it. Doing this for just five minutes — or even one minute at a time throughout the day — helps "you become aware of where you hold tension and gives you a chance to correct it," says Mauskop.
2. Own your feelings.
It's obvious that anger isn't a pleasant feeling, but it turns out it can be a real pain in the head — when you try to suppress it, that is. In the same October 2013 study showing the benefits of PMR, participants who learned to recognize, experience, and express their anger had similar improvements to the PMR group.
"By far the most common source of emotional stress in people with headaches is the suppression of anger and related feelings," says Mark A. Lumley, PhD, a professor and director of clinical psychology training at Wayne State University. He believes that learning to recognize anger and express it in healthy ways helps people reduce stress and the physical symptoms that go along with them, including headaches.
He has some tips to make peace with your fiery side: Learn to identify and label your feelings, and express them in a safe place — while alone or with a therapist or other trusted person.
"In particular, search for anger, which is a normal, healthy, and powerfully adaptive emotion," he says. "When you experience a little of it, try to make it stronger. Don't fear your anger."
3. Find your zen.
"Meditation can be useful as a sort of daily vitamin to prevent headaches as well as an analgesic once they start," says Amy Wachholtz, PhD, director of health psychology and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and who has conducted numerous studies on the topic.
In addition to reducing stress-related chemicals that can build throughout the day, meditation also decreases dilation and spasms of the blood vessels, both of which are associated with headaches, says Dr. Wachholtz.
In a small study she co-authored, migraine sufferers who were total meditation newbies tried a guided loving-kindness meditation for 20 minutes. The results, which appeared in the March 2014 issue of Pain Management Nursing, show that immediately after meditating, participants reported 33 percent less pain and 43 percent less tension.
Not sure where to start? Try some of the free guided meditation podcasts from UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center.
Physical activity is another double-duty tool in the headache-busting arsenal, helping to both prevent and relieve head pain. There's a clear link between exercise and headache frequency, says Mauskop, citing research published in December 2008 in the journal Cephalgia.
In the study of more than 46,000 people, lower levels of physical activity were associated with more frequent headaches. Mauskop recommends a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes of cardio — walking, running, swimming, cycling, or group aerobics, for example — three or four times per week.
He notes that some people actually get headaches when they work out, however, but this can resolve over time if you ease into the habit. If needed, start with 10 minutes of low-intensity exercise on a stationary bike and build your workout length and intensity over time.
For quick relief, Wachholtz recommends at least 10 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise. It takes about that long to trigger the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers that also help lift your mood.