When you have a bad headache, you'll do anything to make it stop immediately. The good news is that there are ways to get relief—you just need to have some basic tools on-hand, along with a little know-how. Keep this advice from neurologists on the back burner for the next time a headache strikes. It could save you a lot of pain.
What causes headaches?
Headaches can generally be broken into two camps: tension and migraine, Dr. Amit Sachdev, medical director in the department of neurology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life. Not surprisingly, tension headaches are often caused by tension, according to Sachdev. "Stress, high blood pressure, a pulled muscle in the neck can all cause this," he explains.
People are more likely to get tension headaches if they work too much, don't get enough sleep, miss meals or use alcohol, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
"Migraines are a lot harder to understand," Sachdev says. They're different from tension headaches: Migraines can cause an intense pulsing or throbbing pain in one side of the head, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). They can last anywhere from four to 72 hours if they go untreated, and can also cause nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine sufferers may also have an aura, temporary loss of vision or see flashing lights or zig-zag lines. Migraines can be triggered by stress, anxiety, hormonal changes, bright or flashing lights, lack of food or sleep, and certain foods and drink. It's not entirely clear why some people have migraines while others don't, but NINDS says that it appears that migraine has a genetic cause.
In addition to migraines and tension headaches, there are also cluster headaches, which are one-sided and strike quickly and typically without warning, according to the Mayo Clinic. Cluster headaches can last daily for several weeks or months and share some similarities with migraines, such as sensitivity to light and sound.
How to get rid of a headache once it's started
Everyone responds differently to headache treatments, but there are some that tend to be more successful at getting rid of a headache than others. Neurologists recommend trying these the next time a headache strikes:
Take caffeine. Whether you have it in the form of coffee, soda or dark chocolate, "caffeine is a vasoconstrictor — it causes your blood vessels to narrow," Dr. Medhat Mikhael, pain management specialist and medical director of the non-operative program at the Spine Health Center at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. "When some people take caffeine, they feel better," he adds. But taking too much caffeine can have the opposite effect and make you feel worse. If you feel a headache coming on, Mikhael recommends having a small cup of coffee and seeing where it gets you.
Use pain relievers. A group of hormones called prostaglandins are secreted when you have a bad headache or migraine, causing inflammation and that intense pain you feel. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen reduce the inflammation caused by prostaglandins, Sachdev says. It also helps tamp down on the actual pain, Mikhael says. In some cases, such as with migraines, your health care provider can prescribe prescription medications.
Apply a hot or cold compress. Both can help ease the pain of a headache. "In general, most sufferers with migraine headache prefer cold packs," according to the National Headache Foundation. "Sufferers with tension-type or muscle contraction headaches may prefer warm packs." The foundation recommends applying cold packs to the forehead and temples, and warm packs to the neck and back of the head.
Drink more water. Being well hydrated is helpful in general, but it's especially crucial if your headache is from dehydration. "When you're dehydrated, the imbalance between electrolytes and fluids makes the brain shrink and retract away from the skull, causing a lot of tension — that can lead to a headache," Mikhael says. The amount that will help ultimately depends on how dehydrated you are. But, in general, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that men take in 15.5 cups of fluids a day and women have 11.5 cups. (Note: This is from both foods and liquids.)
Try to sleep. It's not always easy when you're in pain but, if you're able, doctors say this move can help. Both migraine and tension headaches "will result in irritation of the structures around the head. Sleep relaxes these," Sachdev says.
If headaches are a regular thing for you, Mikhael says these moves may help lower the amount you deal with in the future:
Find ways to reduce your stress levels, such as through yoga or meditation
Stay well hydrated
Avoid food that's high in sodium
Reduce how much alcohol you have
When to see a doctor about your headaches
Having a standard headache now and then isn't necessarily a reason to see your doctor. But sometimes a headache can be a sign of a serious underlying health condition. Experts recommend seeking medical attention right away if you have a sudden, severe headache that feels like "the worst headache of your life," Mikhael says, or what the Mayo Clinic describes as a "thunderclap."
You should also see a doctor if you develop a headache after getting hit in the head or for any headache that's accompanied by a stiff neck, fever, confusion, loss of consciousness, or pain in the eye or ear, according the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Another sign it's time to visit a health care professional? "When your headaches are bad enough to interfere with function," Sachdev says, such as disrupting your everyday life or work. Talking to your doctor can help both of you figure out what's behind your headaches and come up with strategy to help stop or at least curb the pain.
Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.