Mark London, M.D.

Nyack, N.Y. June 10, 2013 -- Most people know firsthand that a headache can stop you in your tracks. Having regular headaches can be quite debilitating. Fortunately, most headaches are not caused by serious underlying health problems. There are a variety of treatments and lifestyle changes that can help prevent certain types of headaches, or reduce their effect once they start.  Common headaches include tension, migraine and sinus headaches.

Tension headaches are caused by tight muscles in the neck, shoulders, scalp and jaw. They may be triggered by stress, depression, anxiety, a head injury, or holding your head and neck in an abnormal position. These headaches generally occur on both sides of the head, starting at the back and spreading forward. They can cause a dull, squeezing pain.

Ibuprofen, acetaminophen or aspirin can be helpful in reducing the pain of a tension headache. However, avoid frequent use of over the counter remedies as they can cause significant side effects and actually make the headache condition worse through a mechanism called analgesic rebound.                                                         

Migraine headaches generally are severe, and occur alongside other symptoms such as nausea or changes in vision. These headaches can cause throbbing, pulsating or pounding pain. They usually begin on one side of the head, and may spread to both sides. Some people develop an “aura,” or a group of warning signs that start before the headache. Migraines may be triggered by certain foods, such as chocolate, some kinds of cheese, or MSG. Lack of sleep, alcohol or caffeine withdrawal also causes migraines in some people.

When a migraine begins, drink water so you don’t become dehydrated. Rest in a quiet, dark room, and place a cool cloth on your head. There are a number of medications that can help migraine sufferers. These include prescription medications to stop a headache in progress; over-the-counter pain relievers, and prescription preventive medications taken daily to control migraines.  As with tension headaches, it is very important to avoid excessive use of analgesics and to see your doctor if the headaches are occurring frequently.

Sinus headaches are caused by swelling in the sinus passages behind the cheeks, nose and eyes. They usually last for several days. They are usually associated with nasal congestion, a runny nose, and sometimes fever.
If sinus headaches are caused by a sinus infection, antibiotics may be prescribed. Other possible treatments include antihistamines, decongestants, and pain relievers. Drinking more fluids and using a humidifier can also be helpful. Sinus headaches do not usually recur in the same pattern repeatedly.  If this happens, it could be a migraine condition and consultation with a neurologist is recommended.

Seek immediate medical attention for a headache if:

  • It comes on suddenly, and feels explosive.

  • It feels like your worst headache ever, even if you are a regular headache sufferer.

  • You experience slurred speech, vision changes, difficulty moving your arms or legs, loss of balance, memory loss or confusion.

  • Your headache came on after a head injury

  • Your headache is accompanied by fever, stiff neck, nausea or vomiting.

If headaches are interfering with your daily activities, talk to your doctor. By accurately identifying the type of headaches you have, your doctor can work with you to change eating habits, avoid triggers, manage stress and find the right medications.

About Nyack Hospital
Nyack Hospital is a 375-bed community acute care medical and surgical hospital located in Rockland County, NY. Founded in 1895, it is a member of the New York-Presbyterian Healthcare System, an affiliate of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and has partnered with Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine providing clinical rotations to third-year medical students. Its mission is to provide competent, innovative and accessible emergency and acute care services to the residents of Rockland County and surrounding areas.