Reader’s Digest: 11 ways to stop a headache before it starts

11 Ways to Stop a Headache Before It Starts

Lisa Lombardi

Don’t let head pain get in the way of your summer fun. Experts reveal the best way to prevent migraines, sinus headaches, and other head-throbbers this summer.

Summer can be the headache season

From migraines to jet lag, hangovers to sinus pain, summer can bring on some serious head pain. “Sunlight and dehydration are both strong triggers for migraines,” says Thomas Berk, MD, a neurologist in the division of headaches at NYU Langone Health. Seasonal allergies inflame the sinuses, causing pressure and pain in the forehead. And even summer fun can lead to pounding temples (as anyone who has stayed up late knocking back margaritas knows). To sidestep pain, “Prevention is key,” says Berk. These strategies will help prevent headaches—or at least keep them to a minimum. Check out the 8 types of headaches—and how to get rid of them.

 

Hydrate like crazy…

Being dehydrated can give anyone a headache, but it is particularly problematic for people prone to migraines, which happens to be a lot of people: Migraines are the most disabling neurological disease for people under 50, according to Amaal Starling, MD, assistant professor of Neurology at Mayo Clinic Arizona. Women are especially prone—more than one in five women (and almost one in ten men) get migraines and severe headaches, according to a recent review of studies published in the journal Headache. The condition is marked by bouts of moderate to severe head pain (sometimes around one eye), sensitivity to light, sound, and smell, and nausea and vomiting. Staying fully hydrated is a must-do. Here’s how to diagnose your own migraines.

…But drink less

Summer seems like the time to sip rum drinks late into the evening, but you’re setting yourself up for headaches above and beyond the ones you might expect from a hangover; make sure to have at least one glass of water for every beer or glass of wine to prevent waking up with a hangover headache. Alcohol disrupts sleep, leads to snoring, and dehydrates you—and all of these things can trigger head pain. 

Go easy on pain meds

It sounds counterintuitive, but cutting back on painkillers can actually make your head pain better. That’s because pain medications (both OTC ones like aspirin or ibuprofen and prescription options like triptans) can cause a rebound effect that makes headaches worse, says Berk. “Don’t take them more than two or three times a week,” he warns. Cutting back should help, but if it doesn’t, see a neurologist who will help wean you off the pain meds while offering you other treatments to keep you comfortable. Find out the surprising ways doctors treat their own headaches.

Eat every couple of hours

Mom was right: Skipping meals is never a good idea. It can cause low blood sugar which can spark migraines. If you notice you get headaches when you run out the door without breakfast or eat a late lunch, try switching to smaller, more frequent meals. Good mini-meals include ones that combine protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats. For instance: peanut butter on whole grain toast, apple or pear slices and almond butter, or savory Greek yogurt drizzled with olive oil and served with cucumber slices.

Sleep better

With hot sweaty nights leading to nocturnal tossing and turning, you can easily set yourself up for daytime throbbing between the temples. Headaches are up to eight times more common in people with sleep disorders, according to sleep.org. Consider A/C for your bedroom or at least a fan to keep the air moving. Here are some other surprising things that could be triggering your headaches

Know your personal sensitivities

Not everyone with migraines has the same triggers. You may be fine with a glass of red wine, for instance, but a sip could leave your friend in agony. Still, there are certain foods, drinks, and habits that tend to provoke migraines in many. They include wine (white or red), beer, caffeine (either having it or not having it when you normally would), sunlight, processed meats and hot dogs (blame the nitrites), dark chocolate and artificial sweeteners. Since multiple factors may be at play, it is sometimes hard to tease out your personal Kryptonite. Experts recommend keeping a headache journal either on paper or using the notes app on your smartphone to see if you spot patterns. If you do notice a common theme (bad sleep + no coffee = a headache), then you know what to change to find relief. Check out these foods that can cause headaches.

Watch for allergy headaches

If your headaches are seasonal, the root cause could actually be uncontrolled allergy symptoms, says Tania Elliott, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. “Our sinuses are meant to be hollow cavities,” she explains, “but when allergies flare, mucous can flood into them and cause pain in the form of a headache.” Interestingly, old-school allergy medications like Benadryl as well as new-school nasal decongestant sprays like Azelastine can cause headaches.

Avoid triggers

If you suffer from grass allergies, for instance, don’t sit in the park while they’re mowing the lawns. Keep your windows closed and turn on the air conditioning. Use an OTC steroid nasal spray like Flonase daily during peak allergy season, and add an OTC antihistamine like Zyrtec or Allegra as needed. Still stuffed up and headachey? Consider allergy shots, recommends Elliott. “They can cure you of your allergies by training your immune system to no longer recognize those allergens as something foreign.”

Move more

If you’re skipping workouts to ward off headaches, you may want to rethink that. Studies suggest that frequent aerobic exercise reduces the number—and severity—of headaches. “Regular aerobic exercise for at least 40 minutes, three times a week seems to be effective for preventing migraines,” Starling says. Going on a long run is head clearing in more ways than one. Find out the other natural remedies for headaches.

Let go of stress

You know that stress reduction is good for everything—well, that includes headache prevention. Mindfulness tools like biofeedback, cognitive behavioral therapy, and relaxation exercises not only help people manage stress, they reduce the frequency, severity, and duration of migraines, says Starling. If you’re unsure where to start, try an app like Headspace (iOS or Android; $58 a year though you can test out the free version) or the free podcast 10% Happier with Dan Harris. And while you’re in relaxation mode, make sure you’re making sleep a priority. Getting seven hours of quality sleep most nights is an easy, all-natural way to keep painful headaches away. Next, find out the sneaky warning signs a migraine is coming.