When you have a headache, it can derail your whole day. Even minor ones can distract you from what you need to do, and a significant headache can even keep you home in bed.

Headache Triggers

Many conditions can sometimes cause a headache. Occasionally they happen for reasons you cannot pinpoint. Other times they have a specific trigger. The following things can cause headaches:

  • Stress at home, school or work
  • Medical conditions
  • Hormones
  • Strong odors
  • Lack of sleep
  • Foods and food additives
  • Lack of caffeine if you are accustomed to drinking it
  • Medications

The best way to find out what causes your headaches is to keep a log or journal. Note what was happening when the headache began. Record the time of day, what you ate beforehand, and how much sleep you got. Also, consider what is happening in your life, such as stressful events.

If you want to treat your headaches, here are some suggestions.


If possible, find a quiet place to lie down. Sometimes you can get overstimulated by the sights, sounds and smells around you. They can either cause the headache or make it worse once it begins.

One study has demonstrated that naps can help with headaches. If you didn’t sleep well the night before, getting a nap can help you catch up on the rest you need. That might make the headache go away.

Hot or Cold Compresses

Try applying a warm towel to your head, shoulders or neck. The warmth can relax tense muscles that contribute to a headache.

If that doesn’t help after a few minutes, maybe a cold compress can do the trick. Wrap an ice pack in a towel and apply it to the area where you feel the pain. Research shows that in migraine sufferers, a cold pack cools the blood going to the carotid artery and reduces brain inflammation.


If you are accustomed to drinking caffeine and haven’t had any that day, it can trigger a headache. The body becomes dependent on caffeine’s ability to constrict blood vessels.

Try drinking a small amount of caffeine and see if it helps. As it constricts blood vessels it reduces the pressure-causing blood flow that makes nerves send pain signals.


Tension headaches and migraines can be relieved with massage therapy. Massage helps promote blood circulation, increasing it in areas that may be constricted. Once blood flow is normal, it may reduce the headache.

Massage also relieves muscle spasms and tension. These factors can cause the neck to go out of alignment, triggering headaches.

Massage therapy can decrease cortisol, the stress hormone, in the body. Massage can also increase levels of endorphins, the feel-good hormones.

Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers

Aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen are common OTC pain-relieving medications. They are in a medication class called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. You may know the term better as NSAIDs. They can prevent the body from making prostaglandins, hormones that generate inflammation.

Acetaminophen is another over-the-counter pain-relief medication. Scientists aren’t clear exactly how it acts on the body to relieve pain, but it can work on your headache, too.

Prescription Medicines

If you have recurring, severe headaches, your doctor may prescribe medication to help you deal with them. Your doctor has many types from which to choose.

If you take prescription medication, it is important to follow the instructions carefully. Don’t take more or less than your healthcare provider prescribes. Also, don’t stop taking it without consulting your doctor first.

You can help your prescriptions be more effective against a headache. Drink six to eight glasses of water per day to stay hydrated. Make exercise a regular part of your routine. Choose healthy foods and be careful to avoid headache-triggering food. Get plenty of sleep, too. All these factors ensure that you do everything you can to avoid triggering a headache and give the medicine its best chance to work for you.

If you have a sudden, severe headache, you should seek medical attention immediately. You should also get emergency help if you have one accompanied by fever, rash, stiff neck, confusion, numbness, weakness, difficulty speaking or double vision.

Headaches are no fun, and sometimes they sneak up on you. Try these suggestions to see if they help you get through your next bout.