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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Living With Headaches

October 17, 2011

Keep On Track
Living With Headaches
Living With Headaches
tips for helping to manage headaches
InteliHealth/Harvard Medical Content

Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Living With Headaches

Some headache sufferers have severe or frequent symptoms that have a major effect on their lives. Like anyone with a chronic medical condition, a person with severe headaches must find strategies to keep his or her condition under control. Your health-care provider can be a major ally in this effort, but ultimately you must develop a plan and stick with it.

Learn more about your condition. Millions of Americans suffer from headaches. Government agencies, your local library and the Web all offer free information about headaches. Headache sufferers run chat rooms and support groups, which may offer valuable advice. There are also several books about headaches written by experts.

Find which remedies work for you. Not every drug or complementary therapy works for all headaches or for all headache sufferers. Often a trial-and-error approach is needed to find the treatment that works the best. Talk with your health-care provider about available prescription drugs, as well over-the-counter alternatives. Keep track of your response to different treatments, including side effects.

Identify your headache triggers. Eliminating certain foods or sources of stress can have a dramatic effect on your headache pattern. Figuring out your own specific triggers may be difficult, but an all-encompassing detox plan may be one place to start.

Keep a headache diary. Keeping a written record of your headaches and headache treatments may help you to figure out why you have headaches, what type of headaches you have and how to make the headaches better. Your health-care provider may find it helpful to review this information with you during your office visits.

Have regular medical check-ups. Even if you have found ways to control your headaches, your health-care provider will want to make sure that you stay healthy. People with chronic headaches are at increased risk of other conditions, such as depression and sleep problems. Drugs used to treat headaches can have important side effects, such as bleeding ulcers. Your health-care provider also may be able to tell you about new treatments as they become available.

Take your drugs correctly. Drugs need to be used a certain way to be effective. For example, preventive drugs must usually be taken every day to keep headaches away. They are unlikely to work if taken only on the days you have headaches. In contrast, other types of drugs actually become less effective if overused. People who take pain relievers (analgesics) or abortive drugs (drugs that stop a headache once it begins) on most days may suffer from withdrawal symptoms and rebound headaches on the days that they don't take the drug. If you suffer from frequent headaches, breaking this cycle of pain and pain relievers may be difficult, but also rewarding.

It's also important to keep in mind that almost all drugs have potential side effects and can interact with other drugs that may be prescribed for very different reasons. At each visit with your health-care provider, be sure to review all of your drugs, including those that are prescribed, as well as those that you take over the counter.

Don't allow your headaches to control your life. Some people find themselves in a vicious cycle. Their headaches ruin their enjoyment of day-to-day activities and limit their ability to work, spend time with family or pursue other interests. In turn, this makes them depressed, exhausted and irritable. These negative feelings may be strong triggers for even more headaches. Headache drugs may contribute to the problem by causing fatigue, drowsiness or other side effects.

Breaking the headache cycle can be a serious challenge. It may require energy, patience and willpower. Often, headache sufferers need the support of family, friends and health-care providers to get them through the crisis. However, the reward — control over your — headaches, rather than the other way around is almost always worth the effort.

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