Oh, my aching head!
Headaches must be one of the most common health complaints. They affect all age groups, and have any number of underlying causes. Still, most headaches are a minor annoyance at most, and go away with minimal treatment.
But judging by the amount of money spent on over-the-counter pain relievers and headache medications (about half a billion dollars a year), we must be a country in a lot of pain!
The vast majority (90%) of headaches are the tension-type, or stress headaches.
Luckily, tension-type headaches can be treated easily with simple home remedies or inexpensive over-the-counter medications.
Recognizing and treating the underlying cause of the headache—poor posture, eye strain, anxiety, dehydration—can help prevent future head pain.
Home remedies to try
Feel a headache approaching? You might be able to nip it in the bud with one of these non-medication remedies.
- Apply ice or heat to your forehead, or to the back of your head or neck: Try both and see which works best for you.
- Drink a glass of water or a cup of non-caffeinated tea: Many headaches are caused by dehydration.
- Give yourself a quick neck and scalp massage: Tension-type headaches are the result of tight muscles in your neck, shoulders and jaw. Loosen up! Try yoga to strengthen and relax your neck muscles.
- Take a short nap: If a headache is the result of poor sleep, try to rest for 5-15 minutes.
- Rest your eyes: Eye strain? Lie down with a cool compress across your eyes for 5-10 minutes.
- Take a warm shower: Stand under the spray so it hits your upper back and shoulders.
- Try an herbal remedy: There has been some interesting research into the medical properties of certain plant oils, specifically thyme, rosemary, clove and eucalyptus, because they contain a chemical, carvacrol, that works in the same way as ibuprofen. Sip a tea made from thyme, rosemary or clove (not eucalyptus), or fill a bowl with steaming water and add either a handful or thyme/rosemary sprigs or a couple of drops of clove or eucalyptus essential oil, and breathe in the vapors. I also like oil of peppermint. Remember that essential oils are chemicals, however, so use with caution!
Tips to save money at the drugstore
As always, know what you need, buy generic, and read the labels! And by “label” I mean the ingredients, not the advertising pitch on the front of the bottle or box.
- Aspirin 325 mg; these might come “buffered” or “coated” to prevent stomach irritation
- Acetaminophen (generic Tylenol) 325 mg or 500 mg “extra strength”
- Ibuprofen (generic Advil or Motrin) 200mg
All these drugs work for the average headache. Generic, store-brands cost about half as much as name brand, and if you buy a larger bottle, around 100-200 tablets, they are even cheaper.
Pain relievers marketed specifically for headaches are sometimes a combination of these drugs, such as aspirin with acetaminophen, or they are combined with caffeine. Tablets for “sinus headache” usually contain a decongestant, as well.
Don’t waste your money spending more for these combo-headache drugs. Just buy whichever of the above three works the best for you in a non-combination form. If you really need a decongestant (and I don’t recommend them), buy one separately.
Caffeine—usually about equal to one cup of coffee—is often added because it speeds up absorption and slightly (only in the 5-10% range) improves pain relief. Caffeine makes you feel a bit perkier, too.
But if you are at all sensitive to caffeine, make sure to read the label and avoid this particular combination. Also, taking these before bed will interfere with sleep. And taking pain relievers with caffeine too frequently can cause rebound headaches—which makes you take two more tablets, and so on.
When I have a headache, I just take two regular-strength acetaminophen with a cup of coffee (unless it’s bedtime).
And please read the dosing instructions with all pain relievers! This is especially important for acetaminophen, as taking more than the recommended daily amount can lead to liver damage.
When it comes to saving money on health care, my advice is always the old adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Here are some common root causes of headaches and how to prevent them.
- Poor posture: Too long at the computer or hunched over your iPad? Give your neck a break! Too many people carry their head forward of rather than above their shoulders—”chicken head”. This puts a lot of strain on the muscles around your cervical spine (and makes you look years older!).
- Eye strain: Again, too much time at the computer or doing any close work can strain the eyes. I like this free smartphone app that gives short exercise routines for your eyes. And even if you don’t wear glasses, it’s a good idea to get your eyes tested every two years or so.
- Dehydration: As I mentioned above, dehydration can cause headaches. Make sure you are drinking several glasses of a non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic beverage every day. And the rule of thumb is that for every caffeinated or alcoholic drink you have, you need to drink an extra glass of water.
- Lack of nutrients: Some headaches are caused by a lack of vital nutrients in your diet, specifically B vitamins and minerals such as magnesium. Take a look at what you eat over a week, and make sure you are including lots of nutrient-rich foods like dark-colored vegetables, whole grains and nuts.
- Anxiety: Chronic worry and stress are carried in the muscles of your shoulders, neck and jaw. Self massage will help, but it’s even better to deal more directly with what is causing the anxiety. I’m a classic worrywart and have the neck pain to prove it. For simple, day-to-day help I like practicing diaphragmatic or belly breathing. If your anxiety is at a level that seriously affects your daily life, please talk to your doctor about counseling.
Take care of yourself and use these tips to stay headache free!