Headaches: Know the type before you treat
You know the feeling. It starts as a dull pain that
radiates behind your eyes, or as a tightness that
stretches across your neck. Then, a full-blown
headache erupts. The pain won't let you focus on
your kids or work, and disrupts your entire day.
For most people, an over-the-counter pain reliever
is a quick fix for a nagging headache. But if you
experience headaches more than two or three times
a week, it may be time to see your doctor. "Treating
headaches is about maintaining your quality of
life," says Seth Keller, MD, Virtua neurologist.
"If headaches regularly interfere with your daily
activities, that's a problem."
Track triggers and treatment
Identifying what triggers your headaches is the
key to treating them and to preventing more. Before
you meet with your doctor, record your headache
patterns. Identifying the characteristics of your
headaches can help your doctor determine the
Keep a headache journal, and note the type of
pain you feel, how you treat it, and how long it lasts.
Information such as the time of onset, what you ate
and drank that day, and any other symptoms that
accompanied the pain will also help your doctor
determine the proper treatment.
Dr. Keller also warns patients not to wait too long
before taking a pain reliever. "Medications are less
effective if you wait until the pain is unbearable. On
the other hand, if you take medication too often, it
can make your headache worse." Talk to your doctor
about alternatives if your medication does not
provide rapid relief.
When it becomes an emergency
"The concerning headache is the one that comes on
like a thunderclap," according to Ken Sprankle, DO,
Virtua emergency medicine physician. "If you
suddenly have the worst headache of your life,
you need to go to the emergency room."
Symptoms you should never ignore include:
a sudden agonizing headache, a headache that
becomes worse each time it comes back, or a
headache accompanied by other symptoms such as
weakness, blurred vision, slurred speech or fever.
These are signs of serious medical conditions, and
you should seek immediate medical attention.
Symptoms and solutions
for common headaches
Download your own headache journal. Use it to track headache triggers and treatments.
- Tension Headache
Symptoms: Mild to moderate pressure on
both sides of the head; squeezing sensation in
the forehead, temples or back of the head that
radiates to the neck; pain builds gradually
Solutions: An over-the-counter pain reliever
such as aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen
is recommended, but be sure to follow the
dosage instructions. Relaxation and a cold
cloth on the forehead may also help.
Symptoms: Mild to severe, one-sided throbbing
pain often accompanied by nausea or
vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound;
sometimes preceded by a visual aura such as
zigzag lines, blind spots or flashing lights
Solutions: Use a cold compress, take a nap,
drink a moderate amount of caffeine, or try
an over-the-counter pain reliever. Prescription
medications may be necessary to decrease or
prevent migraine attacks.
Symptoms: Gnawing pain in the forehead
or cheekbones often increasing in severity
throughout the day; accompanied by nasal
discharge; caused by an infection in the
Solutions: A decongestant or prescription
antibiotic may be recommended by your
doctor. Please note that mild migraines
can be mistaken for sinus headaches. Talk
to your doctor about the frequency and
severity of your headaches to ensure
- Cluster Headache
Symptoms: Intense, severe pain around or
behind the eyes accompanied by tearing of
the eye, congestion and feelings of restlessness;
attacks occur daily for weeks then disappear for
up to a year; least common type of headache
Solutions: Professional medical care is
required and can include medications and