The Best Ways to Treat a Headache

BlogHer Original Post

I'm pretty wimpy when it comes to head pain. I usually grab for Aleve mostly because I noticed once that it worked to get rid of my headache. (I know, terribly scientific.) But June is National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month, so it seemed like a good time to dig deep and find the best treatment for headaches as well as understand when to seek medical help for head pain. Good things to know before I'm dealing with blinding pain.

migraine and headache awareness month

Best Medication for a Headache

Not all painkillers are created equally, and that is partially due to the way they deal with the cause of the pain.  Tylenol, also known as acetaminophen, reduces pain in the central nervous system.  It does the weakest job as an anti-inflammatory, but it also rarely interacts with other drugs. (Side note: Don't mistakenly believe that Tylenol is benign just because it doesn't interact.  Tylenol overdose is one of the most common forms of poisoning, so be careful!)

Advil, also known as ibuprofen, stops cells from making prostaglandin, the chemical that causes the pain and inflammation.  Unfortunately, ibuprofen also sometimes causes damage to the stomach lining.  Aleve, also known as naproxen, is also an anti-inflammatory that reduces the enzyme that makes prostaglandin.  Aleve additionally has the unfortunate side effect of causing problems with the stomach lining.  And then there is Excedrin, which is acetaminophen with added caffeine.  While caffeine can cause a headache in some people, in others, it helps make the pain killer in the medication work faster.

But which one is best?  According to US News and World Report, Tylenol receives the highest recommendation from pharmacists (27%), followed by Excedrin (24%) and Advil (23%).  My beloved Aleve lagged behind with only a 13% recommendation rate.

Treating a Headache Without Medication (or While Waiting for the Medication to Work)

As you wait for the medication to work, or instead of taking medication at all, WebMD recommends placing an ice pack on the painful area of your head.and lying still in a dark room until the pain begins to dissipate.  Headaches can also be caused by dehydration, so drink a tall glass of water (and maybe even a second one) as you take that pill.

What is the Difference Between a Headache and Migraine?

It's not just the amount of pain.  A migraine is an intense vascular headache usually accompanied by other symptoms such as sensitivity to light, dizziness, or nausea.  Migraines can be triggered by outside influences, such as food or noise.  While there is currently no test to diagnose a migraine, there are guidelines that doctors use to determine whether a recurring headache is classified as a migraine.

When Should You Seek Medical Help?

A headache now and then, especially when you're under great stress or aren't properly hydrated, shouldn't be cause for alarm.  But if you're getting frequent headaches, the pain is unbearable, or is accompanied by other symptoms such as a stiff neck or fever, contact your doctor.  Better to get an informed medical opinion than dismiss it yourself.

Do you suffer from headaches?  What do you use to manage the pain?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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