Headache Treatment Options

There are many headache remedies. Medications can ease your pain, but changing your lifestyle to control stress or avoid triggers may work well, too, and may prevent you from getting headaches. What works for one person may not work for another, so work with your doctor to find the best remedy for you.

Medications for Headaches

Different types of medicine treat different types of headaches.

Tension-type headaches:  Pain relievers such as acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen,  usually help. But be careful. Taking too many of these pills can cause hard-to-treat rebound headaches. If you need to take these drugs often, see your doctor. Do not give aspirin to anyone under age 19 -- it raises their risk for a serious condition called Reye's syndrome.

Migraine headaches: One class of drug, called triptans, is the mainstay of migraine treatment. They include eletriptan (Relpax), naratriptan (Amerge), rizatriptan (Maxalt), sumatriptan (Imitrex), zolmitriptan (Zomig), and others. You can take them as pills, injections, or nasal spray.

A form of ergotamine, called dihydroergotamine (DHE), also treats migraine headaches. You can get it as an injection or as a nasal spray. 

Aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) also can help if you take them at the first sign of a migraine attack. NSAIDs also include ibuprofen and naproxen.

If you have four or more severe, prolonged migraine headache days each month, your  doctor may suggest you try medicine and other tactics to prevent your attacks, such as::

Devices have also been approved such as:

  • Cefaly, a small headband device that sends electrical pulses through the forehead to stimulate a nerve linked with migraines
  • SpringTMS or eNeura sTMS , a device which can be held at the back of your head at the first sign of a headache, and it gives off a magnetic pulse that stimulates part of the brain. 
  • gammaCore is a hand-held portable device which is a noninvasive vagus nerve stimulator (nVS). When placed over the vagus nerve in the neck, it releases a mild electrical stimulation to the nerve's fibers to releave pain.


Cluster headaches : Simple pain relievers do little for these, because they don’t work fast enough. But doctors have found that inhaling high doses of pure oxygen can work very well to bring relief. Pain medicine such as lidocaine that goes inside the nose helps some people. Injection of triptans such as ergotamine or sumatriptan (Imitrex) also might help if you take them at the first sign of a cluster headache. Preventive medicines often work when you take them at the first sign of a new cluster of headaches. Choices include the blood pressure medicine verapamil or a short course of a steroid like prednisone.

Sinus headaches: Decongestants, and antibiotics, usually help If there is a bacterial infection present..

Avoid Headache Triggers

If you know the things that trigger your headaches -- such as certain foods, caffeine, alcohol, or noise -- try to avoid them. To learn more about what brings on your attacks, keep a headache diary that includes answers to these questions:

  • When did your headaches first start?
  • How often do you have them?
  • Do you have any symptoms before the headache starts?
  • Where is the pain?
  • How long does it last?
  • At what time of day do the headaches happen?
  • Do you seem to get them after you eat certain types of food?
  • For women, at what time in your monthly cycle do they happen?
  • Are the headaches triggered by something in your environment, such as smells, noise, or some kinds of weather?
  • How would you describe the pain: throbbing, stabbing, blinding, or piercing, for example?

Other Headache Treatments

Other therapies can bring you relief or even prevent attacks

Chiropractic and osteopathy. When muscle strain causes tension headaches, a chiropractor may be able to ease it with spinal or cervical manipulation and realignment.

Osteopaths also can use manipulation and soft-tissue techniques to the head, neck, and upper back.

Biofeedback and relaxation. Biofeedback helps you control how muscle groups react to stress. This may help prevent or relieve tension headaches.

Acupuncture. Studies have shown that this practice of placing thin needles at specific points on the body may help relieve tension and migraine headaches.


Mind-body medicine. Hypnosis, deep breathing, visualization, meditation, and yoga may relieve pain by helping you deal with stress. It may be especially helpful for tension headaches. Hypnosis also may lower your perception of pain.

Cognitive behavioral therapy mixes meditation and relaxation with education in motivation, behavior, and how to handle emotions. With the help of a psychotherapist, you can learn to change negative thoughts and attitudes and the way you respond to stress. Those skills may help you avoid tension-type and migraine headaches.

Botulinum toxin. Best known as Botox, a treatment for wrinkles, the FDA has approved it to prevent chronic migraine headaches in adults. If you have a migraine 15 or more days per month, you can get Botox injections in your head and neck about every 3 months. 


WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 22, 2018



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