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7 Tips for Headache Prevention

By Eileen West, MD, FACP, CCD

Headaches are a leading cause of time spent out of commission–time you were going to use to get work done, go to the gym, spend time with family, but instead you’re lying in bed with the curtains drawn, miserable.  

So, what can we do to avoid triggering a headache when they sometimes seem inevitable?  How can we reclaim that time and attend to the million other, far more fulfilling activities we have planned for the day?  

Here are the top seven tips we recommend you take to help prevent headaches before they hit you1

  1. Drink six to eight large glasses of water every day: It can be very easy to dehydrate your body without a consistent intake of water. What might seem like random inevitable headaches might be a direct result of lack of water. Especially in this summer heat, the easiest thing to do to avoid a bad headache, is to hydrate as much as possible! 
  2. Daily exercise: Something as simple as aiming for a higher daily step or stair count can improve your circulation, stiffness, and sore muscles. Moving your body is another easy way to help your mind stay clear. Don’t forget extra water! 
  3. Avoid caffeine, especially after 1PM: You may not know it, but caffeine is also dehydrating. While you may rely on it for some much-needed energy, use a simple rule of ‘for every caffeinated beverage, I will drink an extra glass of water’. Dependency on caffeine can also mean headaches on days you go without it, so in general, try to avoid it as much as you can!  
  4. Limit alcohol to 1 standard drink per every 24-hour period: Another culprit of dehydration is alcohol. In general, the less the better for your body. At the very least, avoid it within two hours of your bedtime.   
  5. Aim for seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night: A major cause of headaches is a lack of sleep or a lack of consistent long, uninterrupted periods of sleep. If you’re having trouble sleeping, first thing to do is to review some good sleep hygiene practices2 and then ask your doctor what practices may be able to best help you. 
  6. See your eye doctor if you’re due for a checkup: Your headaches might in fact be an indication that your eyesight is a little weak and needs some attention (many people go into their doctor complaining of headaches and realize they needed glasses!). Go see an eye doctor if you haven’t been in a while. 
  7. Ensure proper ergonomics of your workstation (especially since more of us work from home now): Straining your neck, back, and eyes are all common if you have an ineffective or uncomfortable workstation and can contribute to bad headaches. Make sure you have an ergonomic chair, limit your use of screen time to the best of your ability, and take care of your body when working long hours.  

Now, what if you have a terrible headache?  Do you feel like there’s a vice tightening around your head?  Most commonly this is a tension-type headache, and such headaches usually respond to over-the-counter medications and do not cause debilitation. To assist with these types of headaches: 

  • Take acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) and/or ibuprofen3 with a large glass of water as soon as headache symptoms start.   
  • Acetaminophen: the usual dose is 1000 mg (two extra strength acetaminophen).  You can take up to three to four doses per day.   
  • Ibuprofen: the usual dose is 600-800 mg.  One over-the-counter ibuprofen tablet is 200 mg. You can take up to three to four doses per day.  
  • Taking these medications together is safe and can be synergistic.   
  • AVOID using a day of headache medicines more than twice per week; doing so increases your risk of getting a medication overuse headache. 

But what if you have a migraine?  

Migraine headaches are the most common headaches for which patients will seek medical help.  The good news is that there have been tremendous advances in migraine treatment in recent years.  So, if you suffer from migraines, now is the time to make appointment with your doctor to explore all your treatment options.  If you are diagnosed with migraine with aura, please be aware this diagnosis is associated with an increased risk of stroke; that risk is tripled by smoking and quadrupled by taking hormone therapy (e.g., birth control pills).  If any of this applies to you, please follow up with your doctor to discuss steps you should take to decrease stroke risk.     

If you are unsure as to whether you suffer from a migraine vs. a regular headache, answering “yes” to two out of three of these simple questions effectively identifies migraine sufferers4

  • Has a headache limited your activities for a day or more in the last three months? 
  • Are you nauseated or sick to your stomach when you have a headache? 
  • Does light bother you when you have a headache? 

Whether it’s a tension headache or a migraine, the prevention habits listed above are key.  And, if indicated, medications for acute and prophylaxis treatment may also be part of your treatment plan.  We assure you that with proper mind and body care and by observing these top tips, you can help reduce your chances of getting a headache and go out and enjoy the summer safely in the sun! 

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[1] FYI: These headache prevention habits are often referred to as “headache hygiene.” 

[2] If you’ve been following this blog, likely you’ve noticed a common theme in all of our recommendations. Whether it’s how to live longer, be happier, or how to treat a variety of health problems, generally the solution always starts (and often ends) with “the basics”: good nutritionregular exercise, and quality sleep.  In today’s hectic world, especially for us women who wear multiple hats daily, embedding “the basics” into our daily routines is our best bet in getting the highest return on investment.   Keep following us for a future blog containing a list of high yield healthy habits I recommend for just about everyone. 

[3] Please check with your doctor first to see if you have more strict limitations for dosing based on your health conditions, interactions with other medications you’re taking, etc. Ibuprofen more so than Tylenol can cause a number of problems including stomach ulcers, elevated blood pressure, and increased risk for heart attacks and strokes. 

[4] Collected from https://headaches.org/resources/headache-tests/

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