Headaches are one of the most common ailments, and while they are not generally life-threatening, they can be an incredible physical nuisance that can damage your quality of life. Learn more about how you can get rid of headaches below.
What Causes Headaches?
The first step in understanding how to get rid of headaches is to learn about their causes. The exact physiology of headaches is still not known, but doctors do know that they do not originate from brain tissue or the skull as they do not have nerve endings that can register pain. Instead, headaches are most often a result of pain receptors in blood vessels in the head and neck, as well as tissues and major nerves in and around the brain.1
However, experts do know the underlying causes of most headaches. Read about some of the most common headache triggers and types below.
The sinuses refer to a series of hollow cavities in your skull that are all interconnected. Sinus headaches can feel like your head is throbbing or put pressure around your forehead, eyes, and cheeks. These can feel like a sinus headache, migraine, or tension headache. Other symptoms of a sinus headache include:
- More pain when bending forward or lying down
- A stuffy nose
- Aching in your upper teeth12
Most often, sinus headaches are associated with other types of headaches, including migraines. They are rarely caused by sinus infections, so do not try to treat them with antibiotics.
The main active ingredient in coffee, tea, and cola drinks, caffeine is known for acting as a stimulant that keeps you awake and may increase your focus and attention. Part of caffeine’s mechanisms involve slowing blood flow to the brain by constricting blood vessels. Some studies have actually found that caffeine may help to reduce headaches when used in conjunction with common pain relievers, including acetaminophen and ibuprofen.2
Caffeine can potentially trigger headaches on its own, but headaches are more commonly associated with caffeine withdrawals. As your body gets accustomed to caffeine, it actually requires it to function normally. Stopping, reducing, or even delaying your caffeine intake can cause blood vessels to open up, which increases blood flow to the brain and contributes to a caffeine withdrawal headache.3
The best means of treating a caffeine withdrawal headache is to simply take some caffeine. About 100 mg of caffeine will lead to relief within an hour of consumption. Some over-the-counter pain relievers can also help caffeine headaches. If you are trying to quit or cutback on your regular caffeine consumption, don’t quit cold turkey. If you want to avoid headaches and other withdrawal symptoms, taper off your caffeine gradually.3
Waking Up with a Headache
Morning headaches are not uncommon. Many can be attributed to other causes on this list, including migraines and tension headaches, but waking up with a headache can also be associated with sleep issues. Sleep apnea is characterized by abnormal breathing at night, including breathing that is shallow or completely stops while you are sleeping. Along with disrupting sleep, this naturally deprives you of oxygen, both of which can contribute to headaches.4
Studies show that general sleep deprivation also contributes to morning headaches. This can be difficult as migraines can disrupt sleep, which only makes migraines and headaches worse. In one study, only about 32.8 percent of participants with migraines experienced a refreshing night of sleep.5
Interestingly, oversleeping can also contribute to headaches. Researchers believe that this may come from the effects that oversleeping has on serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Oversleeping can also disrupt your usual sleep schedule.6 Consult a sleep specialist to determine the underlying problem at the root of your sleep problems.
Headaches Caused by Alcohol
Morning hangovers are one of the most well-known causes of headaches. Alcohol is an inflammatory substance that can also increase inflammatory lipids in the adult brain. This can potentially contribute to headaches, but any lasting neurological damage occurs only with long-term and chronic alcohol usage.7
Your usual hangover headache is more often attributed to alcohol’s natural dehydrating effect. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it forces you to urinate more than usual. Increased urine production means more fluid loss and imbalanced electrolytes. Alcohol also causes a widening of blood vessels and affects hormones and neurotransmitters associated with the pathogenesis of headaches, including histamines, prostaglandins, and serotonin. Furthermore, although it does have an initial sedative effect, alcohol actually disrupts normal sleep patterns by reducing the amount of time spent in rapid-eye movement sleep and increasing the time in deep sleep. Alcohol also relaxes the throat muscles, which can lead to bouts of sleep apnea and snoring, further disrupting your sleep.8
The best way to treat hangovers is to prevent them from happening in the first place. When you go out drinking, make sure that you drink plenty of water before, during, and after. General rule of thumb suggests that you should have a glass of water between every alcoholic beverage and drinking at least one large glass of water prior before bed. Once you have your hangover, there’s not much you can do, though there are plenty of touted hangover cures out there. One thing to note: do not take acetaminophen to relieve a hangover headache. While acetaminophen is effective, it is taxing on the liver, which is even more vulnerable after a night of drinking. Use ibuprofen or aspirin instead.
Even without the influence of alcohol, your body can still get dehydrated. When your body is dehydrated, your brain can potentially shrink and pull away from the skull. The mechanisms involved can cause pain that results in a headache.9 Along with headaches, dehydration is characterized by:
- Less frequent urination
- Urine that is dark in color
- Dry lips
- General fatigue
If left untreated, dehydration can be life-threatening.10
Make sure you are drinking plenty of water throughout the day. The exact amount you need can vary based on your general health, activity levels, and weather, but you should be drinking enough water that your urine is relatively clear. If you are sweating, make sure you also replenish your electrolytes.
Migraines can contribute to severe pulsing and throbbing sensations, often only affecting one side of the head. Migraines can be near-debilitating and interfere with your daily activities. Migraines last anywhere from hours to days and can also cause nausea, vomiting, and intense sensitivity to light and sound.11
Unfortunately, the exact cause of migraines is not well known. Researchers suggest migraines may involve major changes to the brainstem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve. Imbalances in brain chemicals may also play a role, along with spasms in blood vessels to the brain. Migraines can potentially be triggered by a variety of factors, including certain foods, alcohol, hormonal changes, and stress.11
Most doctors recommend pain relievers, particularly those that include small amounts of caffeine, to help manage the pain until the migraine subsides.
Tension headaches can feel like a tight band or vise squeezing around your head. These are the most common type of headache and can vary from mild to moderate in pain. The exact cause of tension headaches is not currently known. Initial studies suggested that they were musculoskeletal in nature and caused by trigger points in the shoulders and neck muscles near the base of the skull. However, further research suggests that the pathophysiology of tension headaches could be more nuanced and complicated, involving pericranial myofascial mechanisms.13
Relax Your Muscles
Try massaging the trapezius (shoulder) and suboccipital (upper neck) muscles. These muscles groups often tense up (especially if you work a desk job that involves extended computer time). That tension can contribute to headaches. Ice may also help relax these muscles and inhibit these trigger points.
A good tip for your general health, staying hydrated is one of the best ways to keep most headaches at bay. Water keeps your blood vessels working as they should and properly lubricates every part of your body. There is no set amount of water that you are supposed to drink as everyone has different health needs. You should drink enough water that your urine is relatively clear or pale yellow in color.
Reduce Alcohol Consumption
While there is nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional alcoholic beverage. Try to drink in moderation, and alternate alcoholic drinks with water or non-alcoholic beverages. Always end a night of drinking with at least one glass of water.
As tempting as sleeping in can be on vacations and weekends, try to stay within the usual seven to nine hours of sleep per night to avoid headaches from oversleeping. Maintain your usual bedtime. If you find yourself waking up frequently during the night or experience other disruptions to your sleep schedule, consult your doctor or a sleep specialist.
Try a Caffeinated Beverage
As mentioned, small amounts of caffeine can potentially help with headaches, especially when used in conjunction with common over-the-counter pain relievers. The exact optimal dosage or serving size is not known, so start with a lower caffeine beverage, like green tea. However, avoid drinking any form of caffeine prior to bedtime as it may disrupt your sleep schedule.
Use Essential Oils for Headache Relief
Aromatherapy essential oils for tension headaches and other headaches work to calm the mind, reduce stress, and improve circulation through sensory stimuli. Essential oils are usually used in the form of aromatherapy via an oil diffuser, massage, dabbing the oil onto specific pulse points, or using it in a hot bath. Knowing which essential oil is good for headaches can vary based on your needs and sensitivity to the oils. Some recommended oils included:
- Peppermint oil (may help to relax muscles and reduce pain)
- Rosemary oil (may improve circulation and reduce stress)
- Lavender oil (may aid sleep and relaxation)
- Chamomile oil (may relax the body and soothe muscles)
- Eucalyptus (may help to relieve sinus tension)14
Note that migraine headaches can be worsened by strong smells. If you try aromatherapy and it worsens your headache, aromatherapy might not be right for your headache.
Foods that Help with Headaches
The PCRM considers the following foods and beverages “pain-safe”:
- orange, yellow, and green vegetables, such as summer squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, and spinach
- carbonated, spring, or tap water
- rice, especially brown rice
- dried or cooked fruits, particularly non-citrus kinds such as cherries and cranberries
- natural sweeteners or flavors, such as maple syrup and vanilla extract
The American Migraine Foundation and the Association of Migraine Disorders classify some fresh meats, poultry, and fish as migraine-safe foods. The key is to avoid versions that are processed, smoked, or made with tenderizers and broths.
Most headaches should go away on their own. However, if you have a persistent headache that gets worse, lasts for several days, or is actively interfering with your day-to-day life, consult a doctor as it may indicate a more serious underlying health issue, like a neurologic condition or an infection.