It’s time to get to work, but when the alarm rings, you feel that first telltale twinge of a headache in the making. You push through and start your day, enduring traffic, attacking the to-dos, working with clients, returning calls and emails—and all the while, the headache grows.
Sound familiar? You’re probably not surprised to hear that headaches are common. What may be less obvious is what type of headache you have and just what triggers the screaming in your head.
When a patient complains of headaches—after any serious physical conditions or injuries have been ruled out—I like to recommend keeping a journal. You can learn a lot about your headaches by taking a longer view and observing what patterns emerge. Here are 5 types of headache details to record—and things you can do to relieve or even prevent the pain.
Observation 1: How it feels
- Does the pain feel like a band tightening around your head? This is typical of a tension headache. De-stressing may be your cure.
- Are your headaches intense, but short, and do they recur several times a day? That’s known as cluster headache.
- Is the pain accompanied by visual distortion or hypersensitivity to light and sound? Migraine sufferers are very familiar with those kinds of symptoms.
Observation 2: When it happens
- Are your headaches more frequent at a particular time of year? In spring, that can signal sinus pressure from an allergy. In fall, your body might be reacting to abrupt changes in the weather, particular barometric pressure. In winter, the pain could be one, subtle symptom of seasonal affective disorder. In summer, headache may follow eyestrain, the result of too much exposure to bright sunlight.
- Do you wake up in the morning with jaw pain? Tell your dentist. You may be grinding your teeth during sleep.
- Is a “Monday headache” common for you? Check your weekend sleep habits. Sleeping too much, too little, or too late on your days off can disrupt your body’s rhythms, resulting in pain when you return to the norm.
Observation 3: Your location
- Do your headaches happen during your commute to or from work? Exhaust fumes, excessive noise, or motion sickness are just a few possible pain triggers.
- Does a new environment set off pain? Anxiety or unfamiliar allergens may be to blame.
- Are headaches part of visiting a particular store, office, or home? Your headache could be a reaction to odors from air fresheners, perfumes, paint, carpeting, or secondhand smoke.
Observation 4: Recent activity
- Are you usually at work when the pain begins? Poor posture, too much sitting, and eyestrain are common with extensive computer use—and all can cause headaches.
- Did the pain directly follow physical exertion, like trying a new sport? Headaches can be related to neck or upper back strains.
Observation 5: What you consumed (or didn’t)
- Are you getting enough water? Dehydration is a shortcut to headache.
- What else did you drink? Anything that contains caffeine or alcohol can be a pain trigger.
- What was for lunch? If headaches tend to appear after eating, you may have a food sensitivity. Soy products, aged cheeses, chocolate, and aspartame are among the common culprits.
- Did you skip a meal? Don’t! Headache can be a sign you need to refuel.
- What are you taking? Headache can be a side-effect of prescription drugs and over-the-counter remedies.
Finding a pattern is the first step. Then, once you’ve identified what sets off alarm bells in your head, perhaps you can take simple steps to avoid those triggers. Get into the habit of drinking water throughout the day. Pack a pair of earplugs if you’re headed someplace noisy. Wear a brimmed hat on bright, sunny days.
Now it’s true that some causes can’t be eliminated. For women, for example, the sharp, one-sided headaches that can occur with monthly estrogen fluctuations may be par for the course. (Don’t think you get a free pass, gentlemen. Cluster headaches are more common among you guys than your female counterparts.) And most of us wouldn’t consider giving up our jobs because of the head-splitting pollution we breathe during the morning commute.
But the good news is, even unavoidable headaches may respond to simple, safe, pain-relief techniques. Before reaching for that bottle of pills, try:
- an ice pack. This classic standby still works. I promised you simple, right?
- meditation or deep breathing exercises. Don’t underestimate the connection between stress and pain.
- a glass of water. Even if dehydration isn’t the cause, a little extra H2O may prevent your discomfort from intensifying.
- acupressure-to-go. At the first sign a headache is coming on, use your finger or the soft eraser end of a pencil to massage the area between the first and second toe.
Headaches can be disruptive, disorienting, annoying, and unproductive, but don’t lose heart. In so many cases, drug-free relief—or better yet, prevention—is within your grasp. Take a moment now to think about your last headache: when, where, and with what symptoms did it occur? Armed with the right information, you can return to comfortable living.