Headaches remain a common source of pain in the U.S., but the frequency and severity differ widely among sufferers, and how to avoid headaches altogether is still a head-scratcher.
The first remedy for most people is to take a painkiller. But this may not always be the best or safest option, said Dr. Suhyun An, an expert on regenerative medicine and co-author of “Demystifying Stem Cells: A Real-Life Approach To Regenerative Medicine”.
“Whether it’s aspirin, acetaminophen, naproxen, ibuprofen, or another medicine, these can work well – if you don’t use them too often,” she said. “Using too much pain medicine can make your headache worse and cause other problems as well. And you may also have headaches more often as a result.”
Dr. An reviews why you might want to rethink popping a painkiller every time you get a headache, and she suggests other ways to deal with or reduce the frequency of headaches:
•Side effects. Non-prescription analgesics, commonly taken for headaches, can have serious side effects if taken too often.
“For example, if you regularly take acetaminophen (paracetamol) for several days, you could damage your liver,” Dr. An said. “These drugs can also cause kidney problems. Aspirin and ibuprofen sometimes cause gastric bleeding.”
•Rebound headache. An additional problem you may encounter if you take pain relievers regularly is a medication overuse headache, also known as a rebound headache.
“This is caused by regular, long-term use of medication to treat headaches, such as migraines,” Dr. An said. “It becomes less effective and your headache comes back as soon as the medicine wears off. If you choose to take a pain reliever, always follow the dosage recommendations on the label.”
•Make lifestyle changes.
Headaches occur for many reasons: lack of sleep, poor diet, stress, excessive computer or phone screen time, etc. Tweaks in your daily routine can reduce the number of headaches or migraines you have. Dr. An suggests drinking plenty of water, monitoring your caffeine and alcohol intake, having a consistent sleep schedule, getting exercise, and having a healthy diet.
“Tracking your headaches can help you devise lifestyle changes,” Dr. An said. “Write down when you get one and what you were doing beforehand.”
•See a doctor. If your headaches get in the way of daily life, it’s time to talk to a doctor.
Dr. An said the following occurrences should cause someone to seek medical advice: severe headaches that come on quickly; a headache accompanied by fever, stiff neck, rash, confusion, seizure, double vision, weakness, numbness or difficulty speaking; a headache increasing in severity despite rest and pain medication; taking pain relievers more than twice a week; certain actions like bending over or coughing that bring on a headache.
“Your primary care physician is a good place to start, but headaches can be complex, and neurologists and headache specialists have special training to help them figure out the type of headache you have and its causes,” Dr. An said.
•Use natural therapies.
“Many natural therapies can be useful,” Dr. An said. “Your headache specialist may suggest stress management such as relaxation exercises and meditation, physical therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, biofeedback, massage or acupuncture.
“Whether or not you suffer from frequent, severe headaches, migraines, or just the occasional tension headache, you should try to limit the use of over-the-counter and prescription drugs,” Dr. An said. “Meanwhile, you should always be vigilant about your lifestyle habits.”
Dr. Suhyun An is clinic director at Campbell Medical Group in Houston and an expert on regenerative medicine. Dr. An received a BS in Biochemistry and Biophysical Science from University of Houston, graduated cum laude from Parker College of Chiropractic, and got her master’s in nursing science from Samford University.