8 tips for preventing and managing headaches

Excerpt: Headaches affect about half of adults globally and preventive non-drug strategies can be effective in helping to relieve headache pain and improve quality of life. Low-impact exercise, meditation, and other relaxation techniques can prevent or ease headaches by reducing stress and unwinding tight muscles. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy meals, staying hydrated, and avoiding headache triggers can also help to prevent or reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches.

June is Migraine and Headache Awareness Month.* Headaches affect about half of all adults globally,* according to the World Health Organization, and knowing how to effectively prevent or manage headaches can make a significant difference in relieving pain and improving people’s quality of life.

The most common are tension-type headaches, which can be brought on by stress, depression, hunger and muscle strain,* says HealthLink BC. Migraines are the second most common type of headache among older adults, affecting about 10% of seniors every year,* according to Mayo Clinic. In Canada, at least 2.6 million women and nearly 1 million men overall experience migraines,* reports Canadian Family Physician.

While prescription and over the counter (OTC) medications may have a role to play in managing headaches in consultation with a doctor, preventive strategies such as stress management, regular exercise and getting more sleep can help to ease symptoms and provide pain relief,* advises Harvard Medical School.

Here are some tips to help prevent headaches, and reduce their frequency and severity:

  1. Exercise to ease tension headaches. Doing low-impact exercise—such as walking, yoga or using resistance bands for strength training—can provide relief by lowering stress and unwinding muscle tightness, two of the biggest causes of tension headaches,* advises WebMD.
  2. Avoid migraine and other headache triggers. Common headache triggers include certain foods such as nuts, bananas, cheese, onions, and processed foods with nitrites, nitrates or monosodium glutamate, alcohol, lack of sleep, bright light, loud noises, smoke, caffeine withdrawal, and stress.* A headache diary can help you track your triggers and try to avoid them.*
  3. Mindfulness meditation offers migraine relief. A 2021 International Journal of Behavioral Medicine study found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy decreased migraine frequency by 40% and improved psychological functioning.* Mindfulness meditation reduced migraine frequency and headache-related disability, pain intensity and depression,* reported a JAMA Internal Medicine study.
  4. Get enough sleep and don’t skip meals. Studies have linked lack of sleep to both tension and migraine headaches,* according to Healthline. Try to follow a regular sleep schedule and eat healthy meals at about the same time each day.*
  5. Stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can cause headaches in older adults,* Drink plenty of water or other fluids every day to prevent dehydration headaches. To relieve a dehydration headache, sip a glass of water or two slowly and this should help you feel better within three hours of drinking.* Also, be aware that dehydration is a common side effect of many prescription and OTC medications.*
  6. Prevent rebound headaches. Avoid taking OTC pain relievers more than three times a week because you may get rebound headaches.*
  7. Use a cold compress to ease mild pain. Apply a cold, moist cloth to your forehead and temples to relieve mild headache pain.* Don’t apply ice or a cold pack directly to your skin and limit use to 15 minutes at a time.
  8. Try complementary or alternative therapies. There is evidence that acupuncture, biofeedback, and massage offer some people relief from headache pain.*