woman with headache

Three steps to help with severe or frequent headaches

If frequent or severe headaches are disrupting your life, you may need to seek the help of a headache specialist for effective treatment plans.

If you have a headache requiring a pain reliever more than five days per month, it’s worth talking to your primary care physician or seeing a specialist for evaluation, according to Hrachya Nersesyan, MD, a neurologist and the director of the OSF HealthCare Illinois Neurological Institute Headache and Craniofacial Pain Program.

But, there are also some relatively simple things you can do on your own to help deal with the problem, Dr. Nersesyan said.

1. Avoid medication overuse

Usually, people manage their headaches with whatever they can obtain over the counter. Relying too often on over-the-counter medications, though, causes recurring headaches to become more frequent, stronger and no longer responsive to over-the-counter treatments. This is called medication overuse headache.

You should not take over-the-counter medications more than 14 days per month to minimize your risk.

Use any other means that may provide with relief, like massage, heat, cold, rest or distraction.

2. Start a headache calendar

Start tracking your headaches on a calendar to help you identify the behaviors and qualities of your headaches. Mark every day you have a headache with an “H” for regular headache, “M” for migraine, or “C” for cluster.

Rate the pain at its worst that day using the following pain scale:

1-2: Headache is in the background. You can still function and carry out daily activities.

3-5: Headache may be distracting, but can be ignored if you are busy.

6-7: Headache is starting to interfere with daily activities. Pain may make it difficult to concentrate. You might experience nausea, light sensitivity or both.

8-10: Cannot engage in daily activities. Headache accompanied by any or all of the following: nausea or vomiting, light sensitivity, dizziness, weakness, numbness or tingling in any body part.

Headaches have triggers and aggravators, and tracking them on a calendar will help you and your doctor identify them. Write down any possible triggers to which you’ve been exposed.

Also, use the calendar to track any headache medications you take, like ibuprofen or aspirin. Try not to treat mild headaches with medication. Write down whatever medication you took that day, how much you took and when you took it.

“A lot of people with frequent headaches do not even realize how much medication they are taking,” Dr. Nersesyan said.

Mark all menstrual period days with a “P.”

Make sure to bring your calendar to your next appointment with a doctor.

3. Identify and avoid your triggers, if possible

Don’t think of a trigger as something that causes a headache. Rather, the trigger activates it, like flipping a light switch.

An aggravator is something that, over time, can make headaches more frequent, more intense or changes their qualities. Possible triggers and aggravators include:

  • Diet
    • Alcohol
    • Aspartame
    • Caffeinated beverages
    • Nitrites/nitrates from processed meats
  • Stress
    • Crisis
    • Moving
    • Relationship difficulties
    • Loss or change
  • Hormones
    • Menstrual period
    • Ovulation
  • Sensory stimuli
    • Strong or flickering lights
    • Odors
    • Loud sounds
  • Changes in environment or habits
    • Weather
    • Travel
    • Change of season
    • Schedule change
    • Sleeping patterns
    • Skipping meals

Last Updated: April 22, 2022

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About Author: Ken Harris

Ken Harris is the proudest father and was a writing coordinator for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare.

He has a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a daily newspaper reporter for four years before leaving the field and eventually finding his way to OSF HealthCare.

In his free time, Ken likes reading, fly fishing, hanging out with his dog and generally pestering his lovely, patient wife.

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Categories: Brain & Spine