Headaches | Treatment


How are headaches treated?

The most common treatments for headaches are rest and over-the-counter pain relievers. These include aspirin, acetaminophen (one brand name: Tylenol), ibuprofen (one brand name: Motrin) and naproxen (one brand name: Aleve).

 When choosing an over-the-counter pain reliever, check the label for possible side effects or interactions with other medicines you are taking. Always read and follow the directions on the label carefully. If you have any questions, ask your doctor or pharmacist. Keep in mind that children should not take aspirin. Aspirin can cause a serious illness called Reye's syndrome in children younger than 18 years of age.

 It's best to treat headaches when they begin and are still mild--before they get more painful. If these common treatments don’t work, talk to your family doctor. He or she can prescribe medicine that might help relieve your headaches.

 What types of prescription medicine are used to treat headaches?

 There are several prescription medicines that can be used to prevent headaches. They have to be taken every day. These medicines include the following:

  • Tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline, and nortriptyline
  • Antiepileptic drugs, such as valproic acid, gabapentin and topiramate
  • Beta blockers, such as propranolol

These medicines can help you get fewer headaches. They will not stop every headache. It can take 6 weeks or more for the medicine to start working. Talk to your doctor about whether one of these medicines is right for you. It is important to follow your doctor's instructions when you take these medicines. Always carry your medicine with you in case you get a headache.

What else can I do to help my headaches?

Besides taking medicine, following a regular daily routine can also help. For instance, eat meals at regular hours. Other things you can do to ease the pain of a headache include the following:

  • Put a heat pack or an ice pack on your head or neck.
  • Take a hot shower. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  • Get enough rest or sleep.
  • Take time away from things that are stressful. This could mean doing anything from taking a brief walk to taking a vacation.
  • Do not skip breakfast. Fasting is a common cause of headache.
  • Get regular exercise of all types. Work up to exercising for 30 to 60 minutes, 4 to 6 times a week. Yoga, meditation and relaxation therapy can also relieve headaches.

What about alternative therapies and herbal health products?

Some patients try alternative therapies (such as acupuncture or chiropractic treatments) for headache relief. If you are considering an alternative therapy, talk to your doctor about the potential risks and benefits of these treatments.

If you are considering taking an herbal health product for headache relief, keep in mind that these products aren't tested to be sure they're safe. You should check with your doctor before taking any herbal health product, especially if you take any prescription medicines.

What is mind-body therapy?

Mind-body therapy focuses on the connections between your mind, body and behaviors. Problems with any one of these things can affect your health. Examples of mind-body therapy are meditation, muscle relaxation, hypnosis, biofeedback and a type of counseling called cognitive (say: kog-na-tiv) behavior therapy.

Biofeedback is a technique where you use your thoughts to control your body. Biofeedback can help you treat physical and mental health problems.

Cognitive behavior therapy is also called talk therapy. This kind of therapy helps you identify negative thoughts so you can stop them before they cause problems. Cognitive behavior therapy is often used to treat low self-esteem and depression, but it can also help ease stress in general.

Does mind-body therapy really work?

Yes. Studies show that mind-body therapy works just as well as medicine for certain kinds of headaches.

How can I learn to do mind-body therapies?

You can do certain types of mind-body therapy yourself:

  • Meditate by taking a few deep breaths, closing your eyes and focusing on your breath or a positive thought.
  • Relax your muscles by applying either heat or cold to the tense area. If heat works for you, try taking a hot shower or bath. Or try a heating pad (set on a low setting) or a hot water bottle. If cold works for you, try a cold pack wrapped in a thin towel (to protect your skin).
  • Massage your temples and the muscles in your neck and shoulders. Massages can also help relax muscles.

You might need help from a professional for other types of mind-body therapy, such as hypnosis and biofeedback.

Talk to your doctor if you want to try mind-body therapy. He or she can recommend someone who specializes in this kind of therapy. Your doctor can also offer suggestions to help you cope with stress.

What treatments are available for cluster headaches?

 Several treatments are available for cluster headaches. It is important to work with your doctor to pick the right treatment for you, talk about side effects of different medicines and set up a schedule for taking the medicines your doctor prescribes.

At the start of a cluster headache, inhaling pure oxygen through a mask can help prevent the attack. Because the headaches come on so quickly however, this is not always practical.

Your doctor will probably prescribe 2 medicines. One medicine is taken regularly during the entire cluster period to reduce the number of headaches. In order for the medicine to work, the level of the drug in your blood must be high at the time your attacks usually start. Preventive medicines work well to reduce the number of headaches during cluster periods.

The second medicine is taken to relieve the pain as a cluster headache occurs. These medicines can greatly shorten the headache and reduce its severity.  Attacks begin too quickly for you to reach medical help. You must be ready to take this medicine as soon as an attack begins. You may want to teach family members about your headaches and medicines so that they will be able to help you when you have an attack.

Medicines taken by mouth work too slowly to give relief for cluster headaches. For this reason, your doctor may prescribe a medicine that is taken by nasal spray, by injection (a "shot") or taken as a rectal suppository. Another treatment that works for some people is using a local anesthetic (numbing medicine) in the nose.

 Although cluster headaches are very painful, with the right treatment most people cope very well. It is important that you work with your doctor to find the right treatment for you.


See a list of resources used in the development of this information.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 04/14
Created: 01/93