Treatments for Headaches

Headache treatment often depends on the type, the severity, and the frequency of occurrence. In many cases, tension headaches can be effectively treated using conservative measures, such as lifestyle modifications (e.g., improvements in diet and sleep patterns) and over-the-counter pain relievers (e.g., acetaminophen, ibuprofen).

Cluster headaches and migraine headaches may require prescription medications and preventative (prophylactic) measures.

Tension Headache Treatment

Occasional tension headaches usually can be treated successfully with lifestyle adjustments and over-the-counter analgesics (e.g., aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen). When headaches are severe or frequent, care must be taken to avoid analgesic overuse, which can lead to rebound headaches.

In rebound headache, high levels of the drug in the body actually cause daily headache. In most cases, rebound headaches improve when the medication is stopped.

Tension headaches that resist treatment with over-the-counter agents may be treated with antidepressant or anxiety-reducing medications, such as amitriptyline, nortriptyline or desipramine.

Some tension-headache patients report beneficial results from secondary treatments that help reduce the effects of stress and tension on the body, such as massage, meditation, and biofeedback. When appropriate, psychotherapy may help some patients learn to cope better with stresses that can lead to headache.

Cluster Headache Treatment

Treating cluster headache involves relieving the severe—sometimes unbearable pain—during the headache, and disrupting or shortening the cluster episode. Acute treatment medications are similar to those used for migraine and include:

  • Sumatriptan (Imitrex)—injectable or nasal spray (Other oral triptans may also be effective.)
  • DHE (Migranal)—intravenous form or nasal spray (May cause nausea and dizziness.)
  • 100 percent oxygen—inhaled from oxygen tank (Oxygen tank can be kept for home use.)
  • Narcotics (e.g., codeine)—oral form (May not act quickly enough.)

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 31 Dec 2001

Last Modified: 18 Sep 2015