It’s possible to stave off headaches with simple lifestyle changes such as going to bed and waking up at the same time every day; eating regularly; exercising consistently; drinking plenty of water (dehydration may cause headaches); limiting caffeine and alcohol; and reducing stress.
Tension: Since stress is a major culprit, try to find ways to relax. Consider yoga, deep breathing and other relaxation techniques. Exercise is also a great way to de-stress, and it’s been proven to stop a tension headache in its tracks.
If you’re suffering from chronic tension headaches (meaning they occur 15 or more days per month), ask your doctor about taking an antidepressant, which can relieve pain even if you’re not depressed, according to the National Headache Foundation. Biofeedback (see “Complementary/Alternative Treatments”) and psychotherapy can also be helpful.
Migraine: About 40 percent of migraine sufferers could benefit from preventive therapies like prescription medications, but only one in five Americans currently uses them, according to a recent American Headache Foundation study. If you experience more than two migraines per month, talk to your doctor about taking medication daily. Doing so can decrease the attacks by 50 to 80 percent—and reduce the severity and length of migraines that do occur. Medication options include beta blockers, which help stop blood vessel inflammation and prevent the depletion of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin; antidepressants, which raise serotonin levels; and anticonvulsants, which quiet brain activity. Your doctor may also prescribe naproxen sodium or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID); a triptan medication; DHE; and/or magnesium, which can head off migraines. The drugs are more effective if they’re taken 24 to 48 hours before a migraine starts.
Another important prevention strategy is to steer clear of migraine triggers, such as alcohol, hunger, the artificial sweetener aspartame, caffeine, chocolate, birth control pills, stress, smoking and sleep deprivation. Also, keep your neck muscles loose. As many as 75 percent of migraine sufferers get neck pain before a headache, so consider doing gentle stretches or yoga.
Menstrual migraine: Women with frequent and severe attacks are candidates for preventive medications. Some women are prescribed naproxen sodium or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID); a triptan medication; DHE; and/or magnesium, which seems to head off menstrual migraines. The drugs are more effective if they’re taken 24 to 48 hours before a migraine starts. These medications can also be prescribed to treat regular migraines.
Another option is to use the Pill, patch or contraceptive ring throughout the month. Using one of these methods for three or four consecutive menstrual cycles may help reduce the number of migraines from 12 per year to three or four. One caveat: If you suffer from migraine with aura, hormonal contraception isn’t advised ; the drug may increase the risk of stroke, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal. Also, keep in mind that about one-third of migraine sufferers get relief while taking hormonal contraceptives; one-third don’t experience any change; and about one-third get worse, says Dr. Diamond. There’s no way to know in advance which category you will fall into.
Pregnancy migraines: The best prevention is to eat and exercise regularly; get enough rest; and avoid trigger foods, such as caffeine, chocolate, aged cheeses and foods with MSG.
Allergy: Wash your clothes and rinse your hair at bedtime to get rid of pollen. Consider putting a portable air filter in your bedroom, since it can reduce mold and pollen counts, and take an antihistamine every day.
Caffeine withdrawal: If you’re trying to cut back on caffeine, gradually reduce your intake over time. You might start by substituting decaf for one-quarter of your caffeinated brew, then cut back to one-half decaf after five days, recommends Dr. Diamond.