Treating headaches and migraines

Over 10 million people in the UK regularly suffer from headaches, which can affect daily activities. With over 150 different types of headache, it’s important to understand which headache you have to help your GP advise on the best course of treatment.

Tension headaches are the most common type, with a constant ache on both sides of the head lasting from 30 minutes to several days. They can be caused by stress, a bad posture, missing meals or allowing yourself to become dehydrated. They can be treated with paracetamol and ibuprofen, along with having regular sleep and remaining hydrated.

Migraine headaches are different to other types in that they are accompanied by other symptoms and a person can still suffer from other forms of headache. Regular migraine sufferers often have ‘triggers’ that can lead to an attack, ranging from stress caused by their lifestyle to hormonal changes.

Migraines bring about a severe throbbing to the front or side of the head, sometimes causing nausea/vomiting and a sensitivity to light, made worse by taking part in any physical activity. They last a couple of hours or more, with some people needing to stay in bed for days at a time. Again, over-the-counter products can help but severe attacks will need prescription medication to relieve or prevent them.

Medication overuse headaches are caused by excessive use of pain-relief medicines, whether to relieve a headache or other problem. Unlike a migraine, where multiple symptoms go away between attacks, a medication overuse headache is a dull constant pain, usually worse in the morning most days.

Cluster headaches, while rare, cause intense pain around one eye that can last for over a month. Your GP can prescribe treatment to prevent the attacks.

Hormone headaches can be triggered by the contraceptive pill, the menopause or pregnancy. Reducing stress, improving the quality of your sleep and not missing meals can help reduce these headaches.

Headaches can also result from excessive alcohol consumption, a cold or flu, and inflammation of the sinuses.

Avoid sleeping more than you normally do and don’t strain your eyes through looking at a screen for a long time.

Most headaches can be avoided by drinking plenty of water, finding time to relax and taking regular exercise.

Monitor your alcohol intake, eat meals even if you don’t feel like it and avoid eye strain by taking breaks when using a monitor.

Some people find relief from taking herbal vitamins and supplements. From the available evidence, it is suggested that acupuncture could be a valuable option for patients suffering from frequent tension-type headache.

Spinal manipulation and neck exercises may be effective for migraine and chronic tension-type headache.

There is limited evidence for the following treatment options. The evidence available however, suggests that transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), therapeutic touch, cranial electrotherapy, and a combination of self-massage may also be effective. Although none of these treatments have conclusive evidence for their effectiveness, all appear to be associated with little risk of serious adverse effects.

When to seek help

More serious causes of headaches include head injuries and concussion, sleep apnoea (narrowing of the throat during sleep) and carbon monoxide poisoning. In extreme cases, it may be a symptom of a stroke, brain tumour or meningitis.

You should see your GP if:

  • A headache keeps returning
  • Painkillers don’t help and the headache gets worse, you feel sick and light or noise is painful
  • Your arms or legs feel numb/weak

You should urgently consult your doctor or call NHS 111 if:

  • You suffer from blurred vision or pain in one eye
  • You have a stiff neck or jaw pains when chewing
  • Your scalp is sore

You should call 999 or be taken to A&E if:

  • You have recently had a head injury
  • You have loss of vision or the white of your eye is red
  • The headache comes on suddenly with a blinding pain you have not experienced before
  • It is triggered by coughing, sneezing, physical exertion or even laughing
  • You have problems speaking or remembering things, feel drowsy or are confused
  • You feel hot and shivery with a high temperature, and have a stiff neck or rash

Sources used in writing this article are available on request

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. Our evidence based articles are accredited by the PIF TICK, the only UK quality mark for trustworthy health information. The content however should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands or treatments.

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Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 15 October 2018
Next review: 15 July 2022