Stop that pounding pain in its tracks with these expert tips...
According to the NHS, over 10 million people in the UK suffer from headaches regularly, making them one of the most common health complaints. However, doctors are still often not sure what causes them, although sometimes they can be triggered by stress, tiredness or dehydration.
There are a staggering 200 different types of headache, and knowing which one you have can help you treat it effectively. We have spoken to the experts to find out how to deal with the four main types – including the dreaded migraine – and the strict dos and don’ts you should follow to help you stay pain-free.
Our expert: Sammy Margo is a physiotherapist, who specialises in lifestyle issues. She has her own clinic Sammy Margo Physiotherapy (sammymargophysiotherapy.com).
Types of headaches: how does yours feel? Plus, how to stop a headache
Throbbing in one spot?
Known as cluster headache, these are frequent, short-lived (less than 30 minutes) and located across the temple or around the eye. They can occur more than once a day and often disrupt sleep. Headaches may recur for several weeks then subside, returning again months later.
How to help fix it:
Of course, there’s no magical cure when it comes to how to stop a headache. But many things can help. For cluster headaches, make sure you sit up straight. When we slump, we kink the head upwards. This can stretch the neck and pinch nerves, causing headaches, says physiotherapist Sammy Margo. Sit with feet flat on the floor, hips and knees straight, looking ahead.
“If you still get a headache, sit up and put your hands at the back of your head dropping your chin to your chest,” adds Sammy. “Press your chin down, hold for a minute, then turn to the right and hold for a further minute. Return to centre. Repeat to the left.”
Or, you could try applying Arkopharma Migrastick, £6.29 (revital.co.uk), which contains peppermint and lavender essential oils, to temples, forehead and neck.
Tight and tense?
Tension headaches are the most common and may last minutes or days. The constant pain, often caused by tight muscles, tends to be on both sides of the head and neck. There are usually no other symptoms.
How to help fix it:
Yoga, Pilates and acupressure can all help. To relax your jaw and facial muscles (which hold on to stress) massage your face and jawline with a warm flannel, especially before bed.
You could also try Chillow, £24.98 (amazon.co.uk) – a cooling pad that slips inside your pillowcase. You fill it with water and it stays cool, thanks to a 2cm-deep foam core, helping alleviate throbbing pain.
Chronic headache occurs every day for a minimum of 15 days a month for at least three months.
How to help fix it:
Sort your sleep routine. Give yourself 45 minutes to wind down before bed. Review your pillow. “Too big or small can leave your neck unsupported,” says Sammy. “Experiment with a second pillow or pillow topper which cradles your neck.” Check out thegoodsleepexpert.com for a variety of different shapes and sizes of pillow to support your neck and head.
Worried? Visit your GP to check it’s nothing more serious.
The dos and don’ts of headaches:
- Do exercise
Regular aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, cycling or swimming, can reduce both the intensity and regularity of migraines, says research from the National Pain Foundation in the US.
- Don’t sleep in
Hitting the snooze button can be responsible for a sore noggin, especially for coffee lovers. Caffeine affects the brain’s blood vessels, so withdrawal, exacerbated by low blood sugar due to a later breakfast, can cause pain, warns Professor Anne Macgregor. Have your caffeine fix at the same time each day.
- Don’t chew gum
According to the Tel Aviv University School of Medicine, a staggering 86% of people showed a marked reduction in headaches when they stopped chewing gum – the prolonged chewing action can trigger head pain in some people.
- Do get enough magnesium
This mineral is key for relaxing nerves and muscles. Deficiency has been linked to more headaches, with research showing that 50% of sufferers don’t eat enough. Tuck into wholegrain porridge for a morning hit and include legumes in your lunch or dinner.
Migraines are a huge medical problem too. Affecting one in five women, migraines costs us 25 million working days a year. It isn’t simply a bad headache, but can have body-wide effects and cause abnormalities in brain signals, blood vessels and chemistry. Women’s hormones play a major role, and migraines are often worse leading up to a period, but may improve post-menopause.
There are two main types – either with or without ‘aura’. Auras are early warning symptoms, and include tiredness, poor concentration, irritability and food cravings a day or two beforehand. They can also produce visual disturbances and numbness. The headache itself is usually one-sided with moderate or severe throbbing, but you may get pain or pressure elsewhere in your head and neck. You may feel or be sick, have tummy pain and be sensitive to light or sound. It can last hours or even days.
Keep a diary to try and identify triggers – record stress, fatigue, neck or shoulder problems, exercise, missed or delayed meals, dehydration, food, medication, sounds, smells, weather changes and temperature. Migraine sufferers are at a slightly increased risk of stroke, so avoid the combined oral contraceptive pill if you get a migraine with aura.
Your GP may prescribe propranolol (a beta blocker) or topiramate for frequent attacks. But, if you suffer from chronic migraine (more than 15 days a month), NICE guidelines state that you are eligible be referred to a specialist clinic to see if you could benefit from complementary therapies.