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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.

6. You're Too Stressed Out to Exercise

Anxiety plus a lack of activity is a double whammy for your poor aching brain. "Exercise reduces stress, helps you sleep, and boosts endorphins — brain chemicals that are natural painkillers," says Dr. Bernstein.

Real pain relief: Aim for 30 to 45 minutes of brisk physical activity three to four days a week, Dr. Buchholz suggests. In Swedish research, 26 migraineurs who rode exercise bikes three times a week for 12 weeks reported that their headaches became less frequent and less intense. If exercise tends to bring on pain, try taking ibuprofen or naproxen 30 to 60 minutes beforehand, Dr. Buchholz suggests. Also, skip activities that make your head bob up and down, such as running on a treadmill. (Switch to an elliptical trainer or exercise bike.) Drink water before, during, and after your workout, warm up gradually, and exercise in a cool environment.

7. Your Sleep Schedule Is Wacky

In a 2006 survey conducted by the National Headache Foundation, 79 percent of headache sufferers admitted they got hit when they overslept. But 66 percent said too little sleep was also a trigger. And naps can be counterproductive; although they may dull the pain of a tension headache, they lead to insomnia, which can set off a new headache the next day.

Real pain relief: "Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on vacation," Dr. Bernstein suggests. "And get enough sleep — seven to eight hours each night." In one University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study of 43 women with daily or near-daily migraines, those who improved their sleep habits — including adopting a strict eight-hours-a-night sleep schedule — got migraines 29 percent less often and found pain intensity dropped 40 percent.

8. You Skip Pain-Prevention Drugs

These pharmaceuticals — which include anti-seizure meds, tricyclic antidepressants, and certain high-blood-pressure drugs — could cut your risk for future migraines up to 50 percent, and may also benefit some other headache sufferers. But chances are, your doctor hasn't recommended them. In one 2007 study of 162,576 Americans, researchers found 39 percent of migraine patients were candidates for pain preventers, but just 12 percent were using them.

Real pain relief: If lifestyle changes haven't helped, ask your doctor about preventive meds. It takes patience to find the right one, but if you've tried several and still haven't gotten relief, see a headache specialist or neurologist, advises Dr. Peterson.

Natural Remedies That Work

Biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapy are both highly effective pain preventers, studies show. Certain complementary approaches also stand up to research:

  • Butterbur: A study of 245 migraine sufferers, led by a researcher from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, found 68 percent of those who took 75 milligrams of a butterbur product twice a day cut their migraines by at least half. The plant has anti-inflammatory compounds, which may be why it quells head pain. But it also contains toxic chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), so be sure to use only a PA-free product. In the study, patients took Petadolex.
  • Yoga: In one Indian study of 72 migraineurs, researchers found that sufferers who performed routines that included yoga and who did breathing exercises had significantly fewer — and less painful — migraines.
  • Acupuncture: Patients who received up to 12 acupuncture treatments in three months needed less pain medication, had 22 fewer head-pain days per year, and went to the doctor 25 percent less often, a multicenter study of 410 headache sufferers reported.
  • Acupressure: In recent Taiwanese research comparing a month of acupressure treatments with muscle-relaxing drugs, the hands-on therapy significantly beat the pills at relieving chronic headaches. To try it yourself: Place your thumbs on the two points on either side of your vertebrae at the nape of your neck (just below your skull). Gently knead for one to two minutes.

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