Expert advice to help treat your pain

Ever experienced pain or pressure in your head? You’re in good company! Headaches are among the most common types of pain and can vary in intensity and duration. You can manage most at home, but if you have a headache alongside any of the following symptoms, you should see a GP as soon as possible:

• Pain in your jaw when chewing

• Pain in your scalp

• Blurred or doubled vision

If you have any of the following, you should call an ambulance:

• An extremely painful headache with sudden speech or memory problems, loss of vision or confusion

• A sudden headache which is really painful

• A headache along with a high temperature, drowsiness, a stiff neck and a rash

What's causing my headache?

There are many different causes of headaches. Here are some things that can trigger one:

• Bad posture 

• Having a cold or the flu

• Drinking too much alcohol

• Eye strain

• Not eating regular meals

• Not taking in enough fluids (dehydration)

• Taking too many painkillers 

• Menstruation (this can trigger something known as a 'hormone headache')

Other types like migraines and cluster headaches are less well understood.

What is a migraine?

A migraine is a moderate-to-severe headache felt as a throbbing pain on one side of your head. It’s frequently accompanied by feeling sick, vomiting and a heightened sensitivity to light or sound.

Migraines affect around a fifth of all women and roughly one in 15 men. They can occur at intervals of days, months or years.

There are two main types:

• Migraine with aura. An aura is a warning sign that a migraine is about to happen, and some people see flashing lights or experience blind spots in their vision
• Migraine without aura is the most common form

Before a migraine (with or without aura), you may experience changes in your mood, low energy levels and a loss of appetite. You should see your GP if you have frequent or severe migraine symptoms.

What are cluster headaches?

These involve severe bouts of pain often felt around one eye or the temple. Cluster headaches might last for minutes or hours and can occur once or multiple times a day. They generally affect the same side of the head.

They begin without warning and can be debilitating, affecting your day-to-day activities. They often occur daily, lasting weeks or months at a time, and are followed by a symptom-free period – known as remission – that might last months or years.

Cluster headaches are rare but are more common in men and tend to start in those aged 30 and above.

Cluster headaches often have one or more of the following symptoms:

• Watering eye

• Drooping eyelid

• Smaller pupil in one eye

• Sweaty face

• Blocked or runny nostril

If you suspect you’re experiencing cluster headaches, visit your GP. It may be you need to see a neurologist – a specialist in brain and nerve conditions – to explore treatment options.

What are the pain relief options for headaches?

Paracetamol and ibuprofen are often effective for mild-to-moderate pain, but migraines and cluster headaches may require other treatments such as triptan-based medicines.

Triptans are specifically designed to help relieve migraine and cluster headaches and are available as tablets, injections and nasal sprays. Have a chat with your GP or pharmacist about the different treatment options available.

How to help avoid headaches

For mild-to-moderate headaches, avoiding the things that you find cause them is the most effective approach.

Maintaining a good posture will help prevent tension headaches, as will regular exercise and relaxation.

Cutting out alcohol reduces the likelihood of headaches caused by dehydration, as does drinking enough water throughout the day.

Keeping your glasses prescription up to date can help to avoid eye-strain headaches.

Eating regular meals will prevent headaches caused by a low blood sugar level.

Prolonged use of painkillers is another trigger. It's thought that overusing them can make the pain sensors in the brain even more sensitive. Turning to non-medical pain relief, like hot or cold compresses, can help. If painkillers don't help your headaches or seem to make them worse, you should speak to your GP.

Next steps

• Exercise regularly, drink plenty of water and make time to relax

• Consider paracetamol and ibuprofen for mild-to-moderate headaches

• See your GP if your headaches are severe or persistent or if you're worried about them 


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