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Headache help: 10 tricks to try

In the Middle Ages, the Arab surgeon and medical writer Albucasis recommended either of two treatments for severe headaches: applying a hot iron to the site of the pain or inserting a piece of garlic into an incision on the temple! Thankfully, today’s treatments are a lot easier to take, not to mention a great deal more effective. A doctor may recommend a prescription medication to treat migraines, and a number of over-the-counter remedies are available to relieve occasional headaches (see “Picking a Pain Reliever”). Of course, if you have recurring headaches, your goal should be to treat the cause rather than medicate the symptoms instead. Try these suggestions:

1. Reduce stress. Do you tend to keep your anger bottled up? No wonder you’re feeling stressed—and headachy. If confronting the source of your anger is out of the question, try venting your feelings by writing a letter. Make it as vehement as you like. You won’t be mailing it; the idea is to express your emotions. Exercise, massage, meditation and biofeedback are other proven ways to manage stress.

2. Ease muscle tension. You’ll find that managing stress also may relieve sore neck and head muscles, but sometimes soreness and tension are caused by sitting in the same position for an extended period—even if you don’t feel particularly uncomfortable. If you spend most of your day sitting at a computer, for example, schedule a five-minute break at least once every 40 minutes: Take a brief walk or give stiff muscles a mini-workout by tensing and relaxing different muscle groups. Make an effort to maintain good posture.

3. Avoid foods that trigger headaches. If you’ve noticed that indulging in a chocolate bar frequently leaves you with a pounding head, blame it on tyramine, a natural substance linked to headaches. If you think you may be tyramine-sensitive, stay away from aged cheeses, vinegar, organ meats, sour cream, soy sauce, yogurt and yeast extracts—they also contain the substance. Two other nutritional culprits to avoid: nitrites, preservatives found in smoked fish, bologna, pepperoni, bacon, hot dogs, corned beef, pastrami, and canned ham and sausages, and monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer included in dry-roasted nuts, potato chips, Chinese food, processed or frozen foods, prepared soups and sauces, diet foods, salad dressings and mayonnaise. MSG is also sold as the seasoning “Accent.”

4. Drink plenty of water. It’s the simplest strategy for keeping headaches at bay, since dehydration is a common culprit. To supply your body with all the water it needs to function properly, drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. And if you’re exercising on a hot day, traveling by air, fighting a bout of diarrhea or running a fever, you’d do well to boost your intake.

5. Avoid alcohol. Alcohol deals a double whammy when it comes to a pounding head: Besides causing dehydration, many alcoholic beverages, particularly red wine and brandy, contain tyramine.

6. Take a coffee break. Too much caffeine can give you a headache, but so can going without it if your body’s used to getting its daily ration. (That’s why some people get early-morning headaches even before their first cup of coffee!) Try eliminating it from your diet, or cut back significantly, even if that means enduring withdrawal headaches for a few days. Enjoy a cup of cocoa (less than half as much caffeine as brewed coffee) or, better yet, decaffeinated coffee.

7. Don’t go hungry. Let more than five hours go by between meals or snacks and you’ll wreak havoc with blood sugar levels, driving them down and causing blood vessels to dilate or expand—a natural setup for a headache. In fact, researchers have found that not eating for five hours or more can even trigger a migraine.

8. Don’t overuse pain relievers. Ironically, relying on pain relievers can cause a lot more distress than relief, triggering chronic headaches known as analgesic-rebound headaches. In fact, several studies have shown that giving up pain medication can help headache patients recover—although they may have to survive two weeks of daily headaches before that outcome is achieved.

9. Get a good night’s sleep. Bedtime routines are not just for babies. Too little—or too much—sleep can trigger a common, everyday headache, or even bring on a migraine. Try establishing a nighttime ritual by going to sleep and waking up at about the same time each day. It’s not a bad idea to take a warm bath beforehand or drink a cup of herbal tea to help you unwind.

10. Take care of your eyes. Few activities are as relaxing as reading—unless you’re doing it in semidarkness or for hours on end. In that case, you’re making yourself vulnerable to eyestrain, a leading cause of headache. Use common sense when it comes to lighting conditions, take frequent breaks if you’re on a long drive or reading for an extended period, and if you wear glasses or contacts, get regular eye exams to make sure your prescription is up to date.