Ninety-nine percent of us will endure a headache at some point—no shocker to migraine sufferers or anyone who has wanted to pull off her throbbing head after a stressful day. "Women are more likely than men to get migraines specifically, possibly because of hormonal triggers," says Stewart Tepper, MD, a headache medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. Happily, there's new information out there about triggers and cures. Follow this expert advice and that pesky pain will no longer be such a...headache.
Blame stress—which can cause muscle tightness and pain in your neck and head—for this most common kind of headache. Fatigue, a lack of exercise and even infrequent eating can also make your body stiffen up. Experts say some sufferers with overactive pain receptors may be more prone to discomfort.
What It Feels Like
A dull pain that stretches across your forehead and/or the sides and back of your head. Pain often increases gradually, beginning around midday. Luckily, says Dr. Tepper, "it's rarely debilitating."
Pop a pain reliever, like Advil or Tylenol, at first symptoms, but not more than 10 times a month (you can develop rebound headaches from overuse). To prevent tension pain, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, eat small, frequent meals and practice relaxation techniques, like yoga. Research shows massage eases tension headaches: Rub tender spots on your forehead and scalp with thumb and fingertips, suggests Boulder, Colo., massage and spinal-reflex therapist Maureen Moon. If nothing works, a headache specialist may recommend an antidepressant to regulate pain receptors.
About 18 percent of women get migraines—the most crippling kind of headache—per the National Headache Foundation. They can be tied to the start of your period; about 60 percent of female migraineurs (as they're called) experience them then, due to a plunge in hormones, says Mark Green, MD, director of headache and pain medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Most women report that their migraines go away or weaken postmenopause.
What It Feels Like
An intense, one-sided, throbbing pain that may or may not be accompanied by nausea, vomiting or sensitivity to bright lights and sounds. It often worsens with physical activity. The pain can last for days and be so severe that you may be reduced to lying in the dark. (If your pain is shorter-lived, you may actually have a cluster headache, especially if your eyes also tear up.) About 20 percent of sufferers have an aura—visual disturbances such as flashing lights and blind spots. Common triggers include dehydration; beer and red wine; aged cheeses; chocolate; skipping meals; strong smells such as perfume; or changes in sleeping patterns.
A neurologist may suggest drugs called triptans—the first line of prescription treatment for migraines, Dr. Tepper says (and for cluster headaches). Once you have a medical plan, a doctor may have you keep a headache diary to pinpoint triggers, and recommend over-the-counter supplements, like magnesium (deficiencies have been linked to migraines) or the anti-inflammatory butterbur. If you get migraines more than twice a week, consider talking to your doctor about trying a beta-blocker.
Swelling and inflammation of your sinuses—the small, hollow spaces around your eyes, cheeks and nose—can lead to facial and head pain, especially during allergy seasons. That swelling, called sinusitis, can also stem from bacterial or fungal infections or, most often, the common cold. Surprisingly, what most people think of as sinus headaches are migraines about 90 percent of the time, one study suggests.
What It Feels Like
"There's heaviness in your sinuses that stays until the infection or blockage is relieved—it doesn't come and go, like a migraine or tension headache," explains Scott Stringer, MD, chair of the department of otolaryngology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. You'll also have a stuffy or runny nose with yellow or greenish gook, and, if it's a bacterial infection, a fever.
Antibiotics can put an end to bacterial sinusitis, or you can pick up over-the-counter decongestants and saline nasal sprays to relieve symptoms. Chronic sinusitis—lasting for more than 12 weeks—can usually be treated with a prescription steroid nasal spray; if it's allergy-related, treatments like antihistamines and allergy shots can help, says Dr. Stringer. If those don't work and your symptoms are severe, you may need surgery to correct a structural problem like nasal polyps or to enlarge your sinus openings.
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