Skip to main content



Headaches and Getting Relief from Pain

Headaches and Getting Relief from Pain

We all get headaches from time to time, and doctors still don’t know what causes them. Simply put, a headache is pain or discomfort in your head and/or face. Although you may feel that your brain is hurting, it isn’t. There are no pain receptors (nerve fibres) in the brain tissue. Rather, the pain you experience is in the nerves of the blood vessels and muscles in your head, face, neck and even throat.

Genetics and muscle tension, which we discuss in a bit more detail below, is thought to be common causes of headaches. So are hormonal changes in women, especially oestrogen, and associated with the menstrual cycle. Finally, the activation of the trigeminal nerve in the head and face, which sends messages to and from the brain, could also cause constant headache pain.1 Even though the medical community may not entirely understand what causes headache pain, they do recognise a range of different types of headache pain – up to 150.2

The four most common types of headache pain are:

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are probably the most common headache pain that people experience. As the name suggests, these headaches tend to happen when you’re stressed. When this happens, you tense up, and the muscles in your head and neck contract. This type of headache can develop when you’ve had a hectic day or something particularly stressful has happened.

A tension headache usually starts slowly and your head hurts on both sides. It’s a dull pain that feels like someone has put a tight band around your head. The pain is not unbearable: in other words, the pain is mild to moderate but can include the back of your head and the neck.3



Migraines are the second most common type of headache, affecting about 1 in every 7 people and tend to be more common in women than men. Again, they have no identifiable cause and can be different for everyone.4

The pounding, throbbing migraine pain in and around your head can be moderate to extreme. Often, a migraine feels as though it’s on one side of your head, face or neck, but equally, it can affect your entire head. Migraine experiences can be divided into stages. The first stage, or prodrome, which occurs in about 60% of sufferers, takes place hours or even days before the migraine actually starts. Indicator symptoms include sensitivity to light, sound or smell, fatigue, mood changes, changes to appetite – lack of, or food cravings. Sometimes patients experience aura. This is characterised by almost stroke-like symptoms: a sensation of flashing, gleams of light, blurred vision, funny smells, numbness, weakness or difficulty speaking.5

Then comes the attack or migraine, itself: you may be pale, feel faint and a bit clammy, with a throbbing head. Often pain gets worse if you do any sort of physical activity and some people experience nausea and even vomiting. Migraines can last anything between 4 hours and severe cases, more than 3 days. The frequency with which sufferers experience migraines also varies from every few days to once or twice a year.6

After the migraine, is the postdrome. During this stage, migraine sufferers can feel anything from utterly exhausted to unusually re-energized and happy. Some, on the other hand, may feel weakness and muscle pain and/or have either no appetite or food cravings.7


Cluster headaches

Unlike migraines, cluster headaches tend to be more common in men than women, and in people who smoke. As with so many headaches, the experts don’t know what causes them, but it does seem that these headaches involve the trigeminal nerve in the face and head.

These headaches, as the name suggests, happen in groups or clusters. They often strike at the same time of the day or night over periods of time. The pain is often sharp or burning, on one side of the head, and near the eye on that side of the head. This eye may droop, swell and be red and watery. Related to that, your nose could also run, and your forehead might even swell up a bit.

Cluster headaches, although shorter than migraines are much more painful, so when they strike some people get agitated and move about a lot. In addition to being regular, short and sharp, people who suffer from cluster headaches may be able to work out what triggers them. Examples of triggers include strong smells, exercise – including alcohol, recreational drugs, smoking and alcohol; bright lights, heat and exertion.8


Chronic Headaches

Headaches that are ongoing and happen 15 days or more in a month, are considered chronic. These headaches may or may not be migraines or tension headaches. In this category of headache, we find a number of sub-categories, including headaches caused by strenuous exercise.

Hemicrania continua and chronic paroxysmal hemicranias are one-sided headaches that can feel like a migraine. In the case of paroxysmal hemicrania, these sharp headaches can also make your eyes water and give you a runny or congested nose. Sometimes people suffer from inexplicable, short-lived, stabbing headaches, which can happen several times a day.9


Rebound headaches

If you treat your headache with over-the-counter medication and don’t properly follow the instructions and take more than the recommended dosage for more than three months, you may experience withdrawal. When this happens your “headache” returns or rebounds, and you head for the pill bottle again.

People who have rebound headaches suffer a withdrawal reaction when the pain relief wears off. This prompts them to take more medication, which only leads to another headache. So, the cycle continues until you start to have daily headaches with more severe pain more often.10


Treating your Headache

As we always say, prevention is better than cure, so if you know what typically causes or triggers your particular type of headache, try to avoid them.

As we have noted, a common cause of headaches is stress which you can manage, by, among other things, regular exercise, eating regular, healthy meals and getting a good night’s sleep every night.

If you can’t prevent a headache and it hits you, before heading to the medicine chest, there are many things you could try which could make you more comfortable. For example a cold pack or heating pad and easing any pressure on your scalp and head. Darken the room, make sure you’re properly hydrated (drink enough water) and try not to chew. If you’re tense and stressed, do a relaxation exercise or get a massage. If you’re feeling nauseous, there are some studies that suggest that taking ginger could be helpful.11


Headache Medication

As with all health conditions, the type of treatment depends on the specific condition. Headache pain is no different and the pain treatment can be divided into three broad groups:12

  • Symptomatic treatment involves drugs like paracetamol, aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen that are used to treat a range of different aches and pains including headaches and tension headaches.
  • Finally, your health care practitioner could prescribe extremely low doses of antidepressant as a preventive strategy and for reducing the frequency and severity of your headaches.
  • Once the type of headache has been diagnosed, your health care practitioner might prescribe medications that work on the muscles and nerves that cause the pain and nausea, for example, migraines. These drugs include triptans (medication that contracts or tightens the blood vessels around your brain) as well as beta-blockers and amitriptyline that prevent migraines.13

Disclaimer: The information on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Contact a health care provider if you have questions about your health.


  1. Seladi-Schulman, J. 2021 Having Constant Headaches? What You Need to Know. Healthline. [Online] Available from  <> 17 May 2022
  2. Headache Basics. WebMD [Online] Available from  <> 18 May 2022
  3. What is a tension headache? The Johns Hopkins University [Online] Available from <> 18 May 2022
  4. Frequency, G. Migraine: MedlinePlus Genetics. (2022). [online] Available at <> 18 May 2022
  5. Davis, P D. 2021 Definition of Aura RxList  [Online] Available from <> 18 May 2022
  6. Description, G. Migraine: MedlinePlus Genetics. (2022). [online] Available at <> 18 May 2022
  7. Description, G. Migraine: MedlinePlus Genetics. (2022). [online] Available at <> 18 May 2022
  8. Robinson, J. Reviewer. 2022.  Cluster Headaches.  WebMD [Online] Available from <> 18 May 2022 
  9. Chronic Daily Headache, The Johns Hopkins University [Online] Available from <> 18 May 2022
  10. Melinosky, C.  Reviewer.  2021 Rebound Headaches. WebMD [Online] Available from <> 18 May 2022
  11. Andrade C. Ginger for migraine. 2021. J Clin Psychiatry. 82(6):21f14325 [Online] Available from  <> 18 May 2022
  12. Ratini, M.  Reviewer.  2020 Headache Treatment  WebMD [Online] Available from <> 18 May 2022

  13. Headache medication, Healthdirect [Online] Available from <>  18 May 2022


Types of Migraine Headaches

Types of Migraine Headaches

There are several types of migraines, and many of them share some of the same symptoms which can vary in intensity and typically include nausea, vomiting and dizziness, as well as sensitivity to touch, smells, and light. Some unfortunate people will experience...

Tension Headaches

Tension Headaches

Did you know that tension-type headache is the most prevalent neurological disorder worldwide with over 2 billion suffering from this headache.1 Unfortunately, even though these types of headaches are common, frequent tension headaches can have a very negative effect...

Stages of a Migraine

Stages of a Migraine

Migraines are more than just strong headaches. While the underlying causes of migraines are somewhat nebulous, it is commonly thought to be a debilitating neurological condition that can be passed on genetically. While this is a common phenomenon, migraines are a...

Please note the content on this website is not intended to be a substitute to a medical professional consultation.