3 Common Kinds of Headaches—and How to Fix Them

Not every mom can or needs to see a specialist when her head starts pounding, so try these doctor-recommended fixes first.

Woman with Headache Wearing Glasses
Photo: Camerona Whitman/shutterstock.com

Headaches are a major pain for women. Thanks to genetics and fluctuating hormones, we're more likely than men to get tension headaches, and we're two to three times more prone to migraines. Add stress, fatigue, and kids squabbling over snacks/toys/anything, and you have a perfect storm of triggers. Moms can be especially vulnerable, explains Mary Ann Mays, M.D., a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

"They're often not sleeping well, and that can disrupt the balance of chemicals in the brain," she says. This is even more true if they've just had a baby or are nursing. "And it can be tough for moms to make time to take care of their own health." I've been plagued for decades with tension headaches and they've increased since I became a mom. When I'm in a whirl of kid activities, it's easy to ignore symptoms until I'm clobbered. Fortunately, there are solutions. Learn the culprits behind the most common headaches and the newest, speediest ways to ease the pain.

1. Tension Headache

WHAT IT FEELS LIKE The most common type, tension headache is caused by tense muscles in the scalp, and it feels like you've got a very tight ring of pain or pressure around your head.

THE CAUSES It can come from stress, lack of sleep, hunger, and lots of time in front of a screen (which causes eyestrain and contraction of the neck muscles). Another common but little-known reason for tension headaches: oral contraceptives. "A lot of women are told that the Pill may help ease their headaches, but it's more likely to aggravate both tension headaches and migraines," says Audrey Halpern, M.D., clinical assistant professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine.

LONG-TERM SOLUTIONS Your overall goal is to try to de-stress and aim for consistent meals, exercise, and sleep. Over-the-counter pain relievers (analgesics like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, or combination acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine treatments, such as Excedrin) can do the job, but Dr. Mays cautions that if you're using them for more than two days a week, you risk a rebound (or medication-overuse) headache, which is caused by taking analgesics regularly, especially ones with caffeine. These can hurt even more than a typical tension headache. Instead of reaching for another pill, Dr. Mays suggests trying a natural remedy such as menthol, the active ingredient in peppermint oil and found in products like Tiger Balm gel and Salonpas pain-relief patches.

A study in Practical Pain Management found that more than 80 percent of those with headaches felt significant relief after putting menthol on their forehead or temples. ( I often plaster so many Salonpas patches on my jawline and neck that I look like Frankenstein's monster and startle the UPS man at the door. But they work so well for me that I've given up aspirin.) Several studies have found that yoga can also help since it alleviates stress and corrects poor posture, which contributes to headaches. So can meditation: Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that it produces powerful pain-relieving effects in the brain. After people took just one hour to learn how to meditate, their experience of pain dropped an average of 40 percent (for a little perspective, morphine reduces pain by about 25 percent). You can meditate anywhere--even while folding your laundry. (Check out UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center; click on "Free Guided Meditations.")

If you spend a lot of time in front of a screen, take a 15-minute break every two hours. Watch your caffeine intake too. If you grow dependent on caffeine and then skip that coffee run, your body can develop withdrawal symptoms—most often a pounding headache. Stick to one caffeinated drink a day, and certainly no more than two, Dr. Halpern recommends. Limit foods with headache-causing nitrites (which are in cured or smoked meats such as hot dogs, bacon, and sausage) and boost your intake of omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods like walnuts and salmon), which have anti-inflammatory properties that can dial down the pain.

QUICK FIXES Applying heat to the throbbing area can work wonders by relaxing muscles, says Mark A. Zacharek, M.D., associate professor in the department of otolaryngology at the University of Michigan Medical School, in Ann Arbor. He recommends microwavable beanbags because people have fallen asleep when using electric heating pads and gotten burned. Also try drinking two 8-ounce glasses of water, which can provide relief within minutes. According to several studies on tension headaches, dehydration is a sneaky offender. A lack of fluid causes your blood volume to drop, resulting in less oxygen flow, dilated blood vessels, and pounding pain. Unfortunately, many parents neglect to drink when they're out with kids all day.

2. Sinus Headache

WHAT IT FEELS LIKE Deep, constant pain in your forehead, cheekbones, the bridge of your nose, or teeth, which often intensifies with a sudden movement, such as bending down.

THE CAUSES Most sinus headaches stem from either seasonal allergies in the spring or the fall, or acute sinusitis, a bacterial infection. Sinusitis usually starts with a common cold, and moms whose kids constantly bring home sniffles from school are particularly vulnerable.

LONG-TERM SOLUTIONS It's important to treat the source. For patients with allergies, Dr. Zacharek usually prescribes steroid nasal spray or antihistamines. For acute viral upper-respiratory infections (viral sinusitis), hold off on antibiotics until you've had symptoms for ten or more days. However, if after several days you're still biting back a scream as you bend to pick up your kid's puzzle-piece explosion, it may be time for a course of antibiotics, he says. If the pain comes with any visual changes, blurred vision, numbness of the face, neck stiffness, or high fever and chills, see a doctor—you may need a sinus CT scan, says Dr. Zacharek. Try to speed healing with nasal irrigation, which several studies say can control sinus problems (use store-bought distilled water, to avoid developing a different kind of bacterial infection). "It really helps if you do it once a day, with spray or a neti pot," says Dr. Zacharek. And as much as you may want that glass of wine while you're in pain, it's better to abstain: Alcohol can cause swelling of nasal and sinus tissues.

RELATED: Don't Take Decongestants While Pregnant: Birth Defect Risk

QUICK FIXES Capsaicin nasal spray, an extract made from the chili-pepper plant, was once only available by prescription, but it's now over-the-counter. A University of Cincinnati study found that capsaicin relieves sinus pain and pressure associated with any type of severe headache, including migraine. It works by both clearing nasal passages (just think of your frantic scramble for tissues after you bite into a jalapeño pepper) and by lowering the amount of a chemical in your bloodstream called substance P, which tells the nervous system to signal pain.

3. Migraine

WHAT IT FEELS LIKE It's severe, pulsating pain on one or both sides of the head, usually lasting for four to 72 hours. Other symptoms can include nausea or vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light or sound. Before the headache sets in, some people will get a warning sign called an aura (with vision disturbances such as blind spots, flashing lights, or zigzag patterns).

THE CAUSES Researchers still don't know exactly what makes some of us vulnerable to migraines; it may be genetics or chemical abnormalities in the brain. But they do know common triggers: stress, loud noises, menstruation, changes in the weather (such as excessive heat), and certain foods (sadly, most often everyone's faves, such as cheese, alcohol, and chocolate).

LONG-TERM SOLUTIONS Migraine treatment has shifted to preventing pain before it starts, with an increasing focus on supplements. Magnesium is now used intravenously in many top hospitals to treat acute migraine, and you can also take it orally as a preemptive strike. Dr. Mays recommends that women take both magnesium and vitamin B2; she suggests 400mg of each daily (check with your doctor first).

It's also worth looking into melatonin. Research has shown that those who take a 3mg dose of melatonin have an average of 2.5 fewer headaches per month. It can help patients with sleep issues too.

Prescription triptan meds help prevent migraines and are common remedies. Avoid relying solely on pain relievers to treat migraine after it develops; some can lead to addiction if overused. Many of the drug-free treatments available have solid science backing them. Earlier this year, the FDA gave the nod to

a headband called Cefaly, which delivers a low-voltage electric jolt to the trigeminal nerve, which is associated with migraine pain. The gizmo looks like something out of Star Trek, but a European study found that those who used Cefaly daily for 20 minutes experienced an average of two fewer days with migraines per month. Botox, also FDA-approved for migraines, is now often covered by insurance for people who haven't had luck with other meds. "That's the latest and greatest treatment," says Dr. Mays. "My patients love it."

As with tension headaches, a consistently healthy lifestyle is key to warding off migraines. So no meal-skipping and no late nights playing Candy Crush Saga. As much as you might want to hole up in a dark room, keep in mind that regular aerobic exercise can reduce migraine intensity and frequency as well, according to the National Pain Foundation. Dr. Halpern has many patients track triggers—such as the onset of their period or high-stress days—in a headache journal over the course of a few months. A little detective work can uncover pain-compounding habits such as frequent gum-chewing, which can put stress on the temporomandibular joint (where the skull and jaw meet). A recent study from Tel Aviv University found that more than 75 percent of participants who gave up the habit reported less frequent and less severe migraines.

RELATED: All About Postpartum Headaches

QUICK FIXES If you don't drink caffeine on a daily basis, a shot of it can provide quick relief. "I've actually been known to prescribe espresso," says Dr. Halpern. Studies have shown that massage increases the body's levels of serotonin, known to modulate pain. Massage Envy therapist CG Funk suggests applying pressure to your scalp, the back of your neck, and your shoulders, using circular motions, either kneading with fingers or gently pressing and holding. (You'll still need to talk to a doctor about treatment for severe migraines, though.) Even better: Get your partner (or older kid!) to massage you.

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