Headache Treatment Overview
First steps to consider
- Most everyday headaches can be treated at home.
- Try OTC pain relievers, rest, and drinking fluids.
When you may need a provider
- Your headache doesn’t improve in about 3 days
- You have chronic headaches (more than about 10 days per month) or your headaches are severe.
Call 911 or go to the ER if you have any of the following symptoms:
- If your headache is the most painful that you’ve ever had
- If your headache is very severe and you also have a stiff neck, fever, confusion, changes in your vision, numbness, vomiting, or a recent head injury
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When to see a doctor for a headache
Headaches are common and can often be managed at home. However, if you’re having severe headaches or frequent headaches that interfere with your ability to work or enjoy everyday life, you should see a healthcare provider.
After age 50, there’s a greater chance that a new type of headache could be caused by a medical problem, so it’s important to see a doctor for an exam and possibly additional testing.
Other reasons to schedule an appointment with a provider:
- Change in your headache pattern (more severe, longer lasting, more frequent, not helped by usual medications).
- Mild to moderate headache that doesn’t improve within 3 days of home care.
- Frequent headaches, more than about 10 days per month. If you have to stay home from work, skip activities you’d normally enjoy, or can’t keep up with your everyday responsibilities, your headaches are significantly interfering with your quality of life.
- Taking OTC pain relievers more than about 10 days per month because of headaches.
The most common types of headaches (migraine headache and tension headache) are diagnosed based on your symptoms and an exam. If other tests are needed, they are used to check for (“rule out”) other more serious causes of the headache.
These may include imaging tests like a CT scan or MRI to check for brain tumors or bleeding into the brain.
Your doctor might order labs to look for signs of inflammation or infection.
What to expect from your visit
Your doctor will make a personalized treatment plan with you that includes lifestyle changes. It’s extremely important to work on improving your sleep, nutrition, and hydration, and to avoid known headache triggers.
- Your doctor can give advice on how to effectively take (and not overuse) OTC pain relievers
- They may prescribe medications that can stop or prevent some types of headaches.
- There are a range of medications to treat migraine headaches. Some are taken to abort or stop the migraine, and some are taken on a daily basis to prevent migraines. Your doctor will discuss with you all the options. It may take some trial and error to find a treatment plan that works for you.
- Cluster headaches can be treated with inhaled oxygen. You’ll usually need to see a neurology specialist if you’re diagnosed with this type of headache.
Types of headache doctors
- An emergency medicine physician (ER doctor), if you have a severe headache that needs to be checked out right away.
- A primary care physician (family medicine or internal medicine doctor), for mild or moderate symptoms that don’t get better with usual home treatment, or if you have frequent headaches. This is usually the best starting point for managing headaches that need medical interventions.
- A neurologist, for headaches that are difficult to manage or otherwise complex.
How to treat a headache at home
Most everyday headaches can be treated at home with OTC pain medications. These include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and aspirin. These should work in about 30 minutes.
There are some home remedies for headaches that can help prevent and treat them. They include limiting stimulation to your brain.
- Lie down and close your eyes if you can. Ideally, in a dark room where it’s quiet and cool.
- Turn off your phone, computer, and television—screens can cause eyestrain and headaches.
- Drink a lot of water. Being dehydrated can contribute to headaches.
- Gently massage your neck muscles or have someone rub your neck and back and neck. Muscle tension can contribute to headaches.
Usually headache symptoms will start getting better within a few hours of trying home treatments, but sometimes headaches last for a few days.
Can coffee treat headaches?
Drinking a cup of coffee can also help headaches, especially if you’ve had less coffee than you usually do. Caffeine constricts blood vessels, which can help with headache symptoms.
Taking OTC pain relievers for headaches more than twice a week can make headaches worse by causing rebound headaches. You can also develop “medication overuse headaches” from frequent, long-term use of these medications. Your body can become dependent on these treatments if you are taking them more than 15 days per month.
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve)
- Combination products containing, for example, acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine (Excedrin)
- Some vitamins and supplements may help headaches including:
- Coenzyme Q10
Certain lifestyle changes may help reduce the number of headaches:
- Get enough sleep—7 to 9 hours a night. Practice good sleep habits to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep.
- Eat regular meals to avoid headaches from low sugar.
- Increase fluid intake, especially in warmer months.
- Stay physically active.
- Take breaks from phone, computer, and television screens as they can cause eyestrain.
- Schedule an eye exam if you haven’t had one in a while.