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Take a Load off Your Mind

Headaches a common, almost everyday occurrence for some people. Being able to quickly diagnose the type of headache you have can greatly speed up the recovery process. In this article, conventional and alternative methods of headache treatments are discussed to arm the reader with as much information about headache relief as they need to tackle their problems head on.

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Headaches have a nasty habit of popping up at the worst times. The constant pain of headaches never seems to go away, especially when you are sick, congested, stressed out, or even recovering from another headache. And how do you treat it? Aspirin, Tylenol, massages, napping; with so many options, what is the most effective? With headaches, it depends on what kind of headache you have. Read on to learn about the different types of headaches and how to deal with them effectively to finally get that last nagging pain out of sight and out of mind.


Tension Headaches

These nasty headaches have a tendency of creeping up during particularly stressful and tense times. Most experts believe that these headaches come from tension in your shoulder and neck muscles, often associated with physical stress and mental stress presenting itself in the body. These headaches are usually fairly mild, but extremely common, especially for students and professionals where the constant stress of exams, papers, projects, and meetings is a part of everyday life. The pain is commonly a constant ache or pressure in the head, but not enough to ruin the day like a migraine headache.

Even though these headaches are the most common, they are also very easy to treat. Most over-the-counter aspirins, ibuprofens, or acetaminophens (more commonly known as Tylenol) can kick these headaches down a notch. These methods are effective and can deal with a tension headache quickly so that you can get back to your day faster. These medications are great at blocking the pain, but do not deal with the source of the pain.

Students can also avoid the over-the-counter treatments for pain and try a different therapy that has gained a lot of recognition in the scientific community for treating this condition. According to a 2011 study published in Current Treatment Options in Neurology, researchers found that acupuncture has proven to provide many of the same results as over-the-counter remedies, but deals with the source of the pain, muscle tension1. Although this form of therapy varies from person to person in its implementation, due to the exact muscle tension causing the headache, with continued treatment, a marked decrease in chronic tension headaches was shown and could prove to be an effective long-term solution to this persistent problem. Not only is acupuncture effective, the same research also shows that it is a cost-efficient way for chronic headache suffers to get long term relief from their pain.



Usually the worst and most debilitating type of headache, a migraine can ruin just about anyone’s day. These headaches can last anywhere from four hours to three days and usually present with throbbing pain to one side of the head and prevent routine activities like going outside, walking, and talking. If nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light or sound occurs, a migraine is most likely your culprit.

For a select few who often get these headaches, a foreshadowing or aura usually presents and over-the-counter painkillers and prescription medication can be taken in advance to lessen the painful sensation. According to a 2011 study published in CNS Drugs, an “aura” is a feeling or premonition that precedes a migraine headache. This usually consists of a tingling or numbness a few minutes to an hour before a migraine. Roughly 11% of migraine suffers experience some type of aura before the actual event2. Unfortunately, these headaches are the most difficult to treat, but if they persist, physicians will prescribe a drug to dull the pain and reduce the time they last.

Besides taking common over-the-counter pain relievers or heavy medications from a physician, spinal manipulation has become a popular, safe, and effective form of treatment for chronic migraine headaches. According to a 2000 study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, spinal manipulation commonly performed in chiropractic offices proved to be as effective as over-the-counter and prescription solutions to chronic migraine headaches, but has the added bonus of producing none of the side effects of drug treatments (including rebound headaches) and was more effective long term3. Patients who suffered chronic migraines were subjected to both popular drug therapies and spinal manipulation therapies and data showed that not only was spinal manipulation just as effective short term, it reduced the frequency and severity of migraines in the future as well.


Cluster Headaches

By far the most uncommon form of headache, but also one of the most harsh and persistent, cluster headaches are notorious for severe, debilitating pain on one side of the head in groups or in cycles. Watery eyes and nasal congestion on the same side of the face usually characterize these headaches and point to this unique type of pain, often mimicking a migraine headache. These headaches are persistent and occur numerous times in an individual and are not one-time phenomenon. This condition is much more common in men than in women and usually has a genetic component to it, so managing it is the best you can do.

Most physicians do not know why these headaches happen, but when they happen, physicians are quick to recognize it because of its more unique presentation than other types of headaches. These headaches are known for their cyclic nature, presenting a sharp, debilitating pain, then diminishing, only to start again. If this sounds familiar and the pain is unbearable, seek a physician’s aid in determining an effective therapy. Over-the-counter painkillers are minimally effective and can only curb the pain, rarely making it go away.

After consulting a doctor, however, it may be a good idea to take a look at a new treatment option for cluster headaches. According to a 2000 study in Cephalgia, Capsaicin gel, the active ingredient in cayenne pepper, applied intranasally (in the nostrils) provides a great deal of relief from these headaches. Initial application leaves a strong burning sensation for about 10 minutes, but additional applications reduces this significantly, making it better as a regular treatment than a one-time-only solution. The capsaicin targets pain sensation nerve fibers and effectively blocks pain reception from your cluster headache, significantly reducing the amount of time one is in pain. Not only is capsaicin gel effective for cluster headache, but research from the same study has shown that any debilitating head pain can be treated with this therapy and the results are just as effective4.


Rebound Headaches

Believe it or not, overmedicating a headache can also cause more headaches. Be wary of your over-the-counter painkiller use because overdoing the painkillers could put you in more pain later. Rebound headaches most commonly occur when over-the-counter painkillers are taken excessively, but strong pain relievers prescribed by a physician also cause them. Luckily, these headaches are not very common, do not last long, and are not as painful. Physicians are not sure why these occur, but they believe that the painkillers could excite the brain and cause it to crash later, producing the rebound headache. Another possibility is that the painkillers leaving your bloodstream can cause a slight withdrawal that causes a short, but noticeable pain.

There are no medications to take when these headaches occur. In fact, if these are common, seek a physician’s aid to build better therapies for headache relief because these headaches are always the consequence of medication.

Definitely do not take anything to deal with these headaches. They are short and feel more like pressure than pain, so tough it out (but only for a bit!) and things should be as good as new. Take a look at the alternative methods to dealing with headaches provided and reduce the onset of these rebound headaches. Acupuncture, spinal manipulation, and natural remedies, including capsaicin gel for extreme headaches are all effective forms of treatment for headaches that bypass any form of medication. The best course of action is up to the reader, but medication and natural solutions are both highly effective in dealing with headaches.


Sinus Headaches

Most people have probably had a sinus headache or two in their lives. At the peak of flu season, these are incredibly common because, unlike other headaches, the cause is pretty simple. An inflamed sinus, usually caused by an infection, can present a dense, pulsing pain in the head that can last for just as long as the infection does.

Unfortunately, unlike other types of headaches, over-the-counter painkillers just do not cut it. The only way to kick a sinus headache is to treat the inflamed sinus. Stock up on antihistamines, antibiotics, and decongestants, because most of these usually have pain killers in them to boot. Once you treat the cause of the sinus headache, you will have one less pain weighing you down.

A simple, cost effective way to both tackle sinus headaches and reduce allergy symptoms is investing in a humidifier or taking regular, hot showers. Research in the Alternative Medicine Review published in 2006 reports that sleeping with a humidifier or taking hot showers, hot enough to produce steam, clears the sinuses effectively and lacks the side effects of medications5. Since steam is just vaporized water, it does not react negatively in your body and provides a simple lifestyle change that is cheap, easy to put into practice, and risk-free. These results are also long term and preventative, meaning you reduce the number of sinus headaches you have and avoid the pain before it even starts.


Hormone Headaches

Hormone headache are headaches that are caused by the changing levels of estrogen and progesterone in the body. Many women experience these headaches regularly while they are menstruating and the pain can range from very benign and hardly noticeable to severe and debilitating.

Jut like most other forms of headaches, over-the-counter treatments are effective. They work because they do not react very strongly with other drugs. Take these moderately and consider talking to a physician if there is no relief or they prevent day-to-day activities. According to a study done in 2011 by Fertility and Sterility, taking birth control has a profound effect on hormone headaches. Women on birth control pills (the oral contraceptive) tend to have shorter and less frequent headaches caused by hormone fluctuations6.

A doctor can help better assess the treatment options based on whether it is related to the menstrual cycle, from taking birth control, or from an unhealthy lifestyle, which can also cause fluctuations in hormone levels. It is important to exercise regularly, eat right, and monitor your period schedule to make sure your menstrual cycle is regular and your hormone levels are cycling at a constant rate to stay healthy. The best treatment for these types of headaches is simply being active, eating healthy foods, exercising, and taking care of your body. Hormone headaches arise when these levels fluctuate wildly from the normal fluctuations of your own cycle, so staying healthy and regular is the most effective treatment.



  1. Nicholson RA, Buse DC, Andrasik F, et al. Nonpharmacologic Treatments for Migraine and Tension-Type Headache: How to Choose and When to Use. Current Treatment Options in Neurology. 2011; 13(1):28-40.
  2. Rapoport AMFreitag FPearlman SH. Innovative delivery systems for migraine: the clinical utility of a transdermal patch for the acute treatment of migraine. CNS Drugs. 2010; 24(11):929-40.
  3. Tuchin PJPollard HBonello R. A randomized controlled trial of chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy for migraine. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. 2000; 23(2):91-5.
  4. Marks DR, Rapoport A, Padla D, et al. A double-blind placebo-controlled trial of intranasal capsaicin for cluster headache. Cephalalgia. 2000; 13:114-6.
  5. Helms S, Miller A. Natural treatment of chronic rhinosinusitis. Altern Med Rev. 2006; 11(3):196-207.
  6. De Leo VScolaro VMusacchio MC, et al. Combined oral contraceptives in women with menstrual migraine without aura. Fertility and Sterility. 2011; 96(4):917-20.


Click here to view the original article published in the Winter 2011 issue of Total Wellness Magazine.


By Nabeel Qureshi, Neuroscience B.S.
MPH Candidate
Department of Health Policy and Management
Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University

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