Whether stress-induced or genetic, headaches are a common condition that can affect anyone. This includes neurologists — AKA the specialists who treat headache disorders.
“Headache is any pain affecting the head, upper face or upper neck. Headaches are called ‘primary’ when they arise from biological changes within the brain itself,” Robert Kaniecki, the director of the UPMC Headache Center in Pittsburgh, told HuffPost. “These include migraine headaches, tension-type headaches, and cluster headaches.”
Migraine-induced headaches cause additional symptoms such as nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, fatigue, visual disturbances and more. People may also experience “secondary” headaches if there is another underlying illness or cause for the headache, Kaniecki said.
Worldwide, headache disorders are considered one of the most common — yet under-treated — disorders of the nervous system. Additionally, a 2018 study found that one in six people in the U.S. reported having a migraine or severe headache over a three-month period.
HuffPost spoke to neurologists about the things they personally do when experiencing a headache, and why these go-to strategies work.
Find a calming space.
Creating a quiet and relaxing environment is often the first step some neurologists take to alleviate headache pain.
“If I have a headache, I rest or lie down for as long as I can, and it doesn’t depend on the time of day,” said Faye Begeti, a neurology doctor and neuroscientist in the U.K. “With migraines in particular, people usually find that they have to lie down in a quiet, dark room.”
Distract your mind.
With busy schedules and responsibilities, taking a quick siesta isn’t always feasible. Rami Burstein, a professor of anesthesia and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, explained that he tends to utilize relaxing distractions when he can’t power nap in the workplace.
“As contrary as it may sound, walking can be helpful and reading,” Burstein said.
Figure out your triggers.
Understanding your headache triggers can serve as both a preventative and in-the-moment approach to address pain.
“Most of my migraine attacks are visually triggered or are triggered when I am ambivalent or worried about a decision or situation. The latter is a bit harder to control, but it’s fascinating to recognize,” said Jan Lewis Brandes, the director and founder of the Nashville Neuroscience Group. “Red wine can be a trigger for me, so I am careful about not having more than a few ounces.”
Additionally, a common headache trigger is sleep disturbances. There’s a misconception that headaches are primarily caused by sleep deprivation, but Begeti explained that sticking to a consistent sleep schedule may be more important than the amount of sleep you get every night.
“This is something that I didn’t know when I was at university, so I would reliably have a headache every single Saturday after staying up late the day before, and sleeping in on the weekend,” Begeti said.
Get hydrated ASAP.
Many neurologists pay closer attention to what they drink when experiencing headache pain. As simple as it sounds, water is your best friend when you have a headache or migraine.
Kristina Lopez, an assistant professor at the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute and headache specialist, said that her headaches are typically a signifier that she needs to up her hydration. While Lopez explained that researchers aren’t quite sure why drinking water eases headache pain (there are a number of theories), it’s a “cheap and safe preventative and as-needed treatment strategy.”
“I finally took my own advice and started getting a consistent eight hours of sleep and drinking more water,” Lopez said. “It’s wild how much better I feel.”
Try drinking a little coffee, too.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, caffeine can actually be a remedy for headaches. Brandes said that drinking a cup of coffee is the first step she takes when combatting a migraine attack, followed by drinking a glass of water and taking medication.
Caffeine causes blood vessels to narrow and restricts blood flow around the brain, which can relieve pain. However, moderation is key: Consuming caffeine on the regular may have the opposite effect, leading to withdrawal headaches if you suddenly stop drinking your morning espresso or green tea.
Eat smaller meals throughout the day.
Interestingly, another personal tip from Kanieki is to break snacks and meals into five to six portions throughout the day.
This is because low blood sugar may exacerbate headache pain, along with migraine symptoms. Try swapping up your meal times or breaking down bigger meals into smaller parts that you eat intermittently and see if it helps.
Take pain relievers when necessary.
Depending on the severity of her headache, Begeti will take over-the-counter pain medication such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (aka NSAIDs) or acetaminophen. However, be sure to keep track of the amount of pain relievers you take: Begeti noted that she limits her monthly intake of over-the-counter pain medication to under 10 days a month to avoid medication-overuse headaches.
If you are experiencing more severe pain or symptoms, it may be worth a trip to the neurologist to see if you could benefit from prescription medication.
“I get migraine attacks and will take a triptan — an as-needed migraine pain medication — and a nausea medication when I feel an episode coming on,” Lopez said.
Remember that some factors are outside of your control.
While some things can help you prevent headache pain, it’s important to note that not every headache can be linked to lifestyle or environmental factors.
“Sometimes there are no notable triggers to headaches,” Begeti said. “A big part of why people get headaches is due to genetics, and I see headaches that run in families.”
Headache pain can range from mild to debilitating. Trying neurologist-approved strategies until you find what specifically works for you may help to alleviate your pain in the long run. Establishing a unique, at-home routine is vital to treating these conditions effectively.
“It’s important to listen to your body. I find that a headache may resolve if I do that and it certainly prevents it from getting worse,” Begeti said.