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Why You Still Get Headaches

Could it be your pain pills? That cheese sandwich? Learn about eight common headache causes and how to find relief from your migraine.

WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Sari HarrarGood Housekeeping Magazine Logo

A tiny twinge tells Kelli Smith, 40, that The Headache is coming. "I feel pressure behind my left eye. Then my pulse starts pounding in my left temple. It feels like a bruise if I touch it," she says. "I get nauseous. The pain becomes so sharp I have to lie down in a dark room."

Raw onion, red wine, cigarette smoke, motion sickness, an off-kilter sleep schedule, hormone swings, and even weather changes can set off the skull-busting pain that has tormented Smith since she was 17. Surprisingly, so can her migraine drugs. "Last year, my pain medicines — the ones that are supposed to stop a migraine — seemed to be causing rebound headaches," she says. "They were coming almost every day."

Smith found a licensed acupuncturist near her home in Omaha. Weekly sessions, along with avoidance of migraine triggers, have reduced her headaches significantly. "I vacationed in Hawaii recently and didn't have to worry. I even went snorkeling," she says.

Head pain like Smith's is not unusual. More than 30 million Americans live with migraines (some of whom suffer chronically, defined as a headache 15 or more times a month); 45 million people cope with chronic headaches of some kind (tension headaches are also considered chronic if you have one 15 days a month). But the relief Smith found is unusual. One reason: Many headache sufferers try to cope on their own. In one survey of 20,000 Americans, researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that half of those who got migraines had never received a diagnosis — a key step toward reducing and preventing the pain.

The American Academy of Neurology is now updating its migraine-treatment advice, while the International Headache Society has called for new research on fixes for all headaches. But you don't have to wait for the results to ease your pain. We've spoken with leading specialists and reviewed the latest studies to find treatments that work. And that starts with identifying your particular mistakes.

1. You Think It's Tension

Believe migraines are always a big deal and everything else is a tension headache? That's old-school — and could stand in the way of relief. By definition, you have migraines:

  • If your headaches fit two or more of these descriptions: moderate to severely painful, throbbing, on one side of your head, or worse when you move or bend over;
  • If you also feel nauseous and/or vomit, or are sensitive to light, sound, or odors;
  • If you've had at least five attacks that last from four hours to three days if untreated.

It's a tension headache if the pain's on both sides of your head; there's no nausea or sensitivity to light, sound, or odor; and it doesn't get worse with regular activities like walking.

Real pain relief: Despite these seemingly neat divisions, experts now believe that the two headache types may have their roots in the same mechanism inside your brain — that shifting brain chemicals play a role in tension headaches, just as they do in migraines. If you write off your pain as "just a tension headache — not worth seeing the doctor for," you could be suffering more than you need to. Address it, and you might even become headache-free: "Strategies to control the mechanism behind migraine can effectively prevent whatever type of headache you tend to experience," says David Buchholz, M.D., associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

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