Headaches: Treatment depends on your diagnosis and symptoms

Do you take aspirin or acetaminophen for all your headaches? For some types of headaches, that's not the best approach. Here's why.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Your head hurts. Again. The first step in foiling your frequent headaches is determining what type of headache you have. Sometimes headaches are a symptom of another disease or condition; sometimes there's no clear cause.

Take a close look at your headache signs and symptoms. Keeping a headache diary might help determine your headache type. Note when your headaches occur, your symptoms, and potential triggers, such as food, stress or changes in sleep.

There are many types and sub-types of headaches. Chronic daily headaches, which occur 15 days or more a month, are one sub-type. Tension-type headaches and migraines are also common sub-types of headaches. They can both be chronic, though they aren't always. Other types of chronic daily headaches include:

  • Hemicrania continua, a one-sided headache that can feel like a migraine
  • Primary stabbing headaches, which last for a few seconds and can occur several times throughout the day
  • Primary exertional headaches, caused by exercise
  • Chronic paroxysmal hemicranias, sharp, one-sided headaches that can cause tearing or a congested nose
  • Medication overuse headaches, which occur from overusing pain medications for headaches for at least three months. These headaches occur at least 15 days out of the month.

Other headache types include:

  • Cluster headaches, which cause severe pain on one side of the head and occur off and on for weeks over the course of a few months. Cluster headaches are associated with one or more signs and symptoms, such as tearing, nasal congestion and nasal discharge. These occur on the same side as the pain.

Tension-type headaches

Tension-type headaches, the most common variety of headaches:

  • Might be felt as a tight band of pain around your head, a dull ache or pressure
  • Might cause mild to moderate pain on both sides of the head
  • Vary widely in frequency
    • Can be occasional
    • May occur more than 15 days a month (chronic)
  • Last from 30 minutes to a week

Treatment

Most occasional tension-type headaches are easily treated with over-the-counter medications, including:

  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others)
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol, others)

Daily prescription medications, including tricyclic antidepressants, might manage chronic tension-type headaches. Alternative therapies aimed at stress reduction might help. They include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Massage therapy
  • Acupuncture

Migraines

Migraines are another common type of headache. They affect three times more women than men. Migraines typically:

  • Cause pain that is moderate to severe
  • Pulsate
  • Cause nausea, vomiting, or increased sensitivity to light or sound
  • Affect only one side of your head, but can affect both sides
  • Worsen with activity such as climbing steps
  • Last from four to 72 hours without treatment

Treatment

Migraine treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and preventing additional attacks. If you know what triggers your migraines, avoiding those triggers and learning how to manage them can help prevent migraines or lessen the pain. Treatment might include:

  • Rest in a quiet, dark room
  • Hot or cold compresses to your head or neck
  • Massage and small amounts of caffeine
  • Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and aspirin
  • Prescription medications including triptans, such as sumatriptan (Imitrex) and zolmitriptan (Zomig)
  • Preventive medications such as metoprolol (Lopressor), propranolol (Innopran, Inderal, others), amitriptyline, divalproex (Depakote), topiramate (Qudexy XR, Trokendi XR ,Topamax) or erenumab-aooe (Aimovig)

Recognize emergency symptoms

Seek emergency care if you have:

  • A very severe, sudden headache
  • Headache after a head injury or fall
  • Fever, stiff neck, rash, confusion, seizure, double vision, weakness, numbness or difficulty speaking
  • Pain that worsens despite treatment

These symptoms suggest a more serious condition, so it's important to get a prompt diagnosis and treatment.

Take control

Almost everyone gets headaches, and many are nothing to worry about. But if headaches are disrupting your activities, work or personal life, it's time to see your doctor. Headaches can't always be prevented, but your doctor can help you manage the symptoms.

From Mayo Clinic to your inbox

Sign up for free and stay up to date on research advancements, health tips, current health topics, and expertise on managing health. Click here for an email preview.

To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information, and understand which information is beneficial, we may combine your email and website usage information with other information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic patient, this could include protected health information. If we combine this information with your protected health information, we will treat all of that information as protected health information and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of privacy practices. You may opt-out of email communications at any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link in the e-mail.

May 10, 2019 See more In-depth

See also

  1. Medication-free hypertension control
  2. Alcohol: Does it affect blood pressure?
  3. Alpha blockers
  4. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
  5. Angiotensin II receptor blockers
  6. Antiphospholipid syndrome
  7. Anxiety: A cause of high blood pressure?
  8. Beta blockers
  9. Beta blockers: Do they cause weight gain?
  10. Beta blockers: How do they affect exercise?
  11. Blood pressure: Can it be higher in one arm?
  12. Blood pressure chart
  13. Blood pressure cuff: Does size matter?
  14. Blood pressure: Does it have a daily pattern?
  15. Blood pressure: Is it affected by cold weather?
  16. Blood pressure medication: Still necessary if I lose weight?
  17. Blood pressure medications: Can they raise my triglycerides?
  18. Blood pressure readings: Why higher at home?
  19. Blood pressure tip: Get more potassium
  20. Caffeine and hypertension
  21. Calcium channel blockers
  22. Calcium supplements: Do they interfere with blood pressure drugs?
  23. Can whole-grain foods lower blood pressure?
  24. Central-acting agents
  25. Choosing blood pressure medicines
  26. Chronic daily headaches
  27. Chronic pain: Medication decisions
  28. CT scan
  29. Diuretics
  30. Diuretics: A cause of low potassium?
  31. EEG (electroencephalogram)
  32. High blood pressure and exercise
  33. Free blood pressure machines: Are they accurate?
  34. Home blood pressure monitoring
  35. Headaches and hormones
  36. High blood pressure (hypertension)
  37. High blood pressure and cold remedies: Which are safe?
  38. High blood pressure and sex
  39. High blood pressure dangers
  40. What is hypertension? A Mayo Clinic expert explains.
  41. Hypertension FAQs
  42. Hypertensive crisis: What are the symptoms?
  43. Isolated systolic hypertension: A health concern?
  44. L-arginine: Does it lower blood pressure?
  45. Managing Headaches
  46. Mayo Clinic Minute: Prevent migraines with magnetic stimulation
  47. Mayo Clinic Minute Weathering migraines
  48. Medications and supplements that can raise your blood pressure
  49. Menopause and high blood pressure: What's the connection?
  50. Migraine
  51. What is a migraine? A Mayo Clinic expert explains
  52. Migraine medicines and antidepressants
  53. Migraine FAQs
  54. Migraine treatment: Can antidepressants help?
  55. Migraines and gastrointestinal problems: Is there a link?
  56. Migraines and Vertigo
  57. Migraines: Are they triggered by weather changes?
  58. Alleviating migraine pain
  59. MRI
  60. Nasal congestion
  61. Nausea and vomiting
  62. Nighttime headaches: Relief
  63. Occipital nerve stimulation: Effective migraine treatment?
  64. Ocular migraine: When to seek help
  65. Pain Management
  66. Pulse pressure: An indicator of heart health?
  67. Red eye
  68. Resperate: Can it help reduce blood pressure?
  69. Runny nose
  70. Seeing inside the heart with MRI
  71. Sleep deprivation: A cause of high blood pressure?
  72. Stress and high blood pressure
  73. Stress symptoms
  74. Integrative approaches to treating pain
  75. Nutrition and pain
  76. Pain rehabilitation
  77. Self-care approaches to treating pain
  78. Toxoplasmosis
  79. Urinalysis
  80. Vasodilators
  81. How to measure blood pressure using a manual monitor
  82. How to measure blood pressure using an automatic monitor
  83. MRI
  84. What is blood pressure?
  85. Can a lack of vitamin D cause high blood pressure?
  86. White coat hypertension
  87. Wrist blood pressure monitors: Are they accurate?