Decipher a headache’s clues to determine most effective treatment options

Nothing ruins a perfectly fine day quite like a headache. The pain can be impeding, disorienting and sometimes even nauseating. Roughly 45 million Americans suffer from recurring headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation. However, not all headaches are created equal. There are several different types, each with varying symptoms. Understanding different headache causes and treatments can help individuals be prepared.

Tension headaches, otherwise known as “stress” headaches, are the most common among adults. Symptoms include mild to moderate pain across the forehead or on the sides and back of the head and neck. This headache is often accompanied by a feeling of pressure or tightness. Tension headaches can be triggered by a wide range of factors, such as stress, fatigue, anxiety, hunger or poor posture. The most effective way to treat a tension headache is to take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever and rest until the symptoms subside.

Migraine headache symptoms may involve moderate to severe pain. Patients who have sensitivity to light and sound may also experience nausea and dizziness. Migraine pain is often described as pounding or throbbing and is usually one-sided, lasting between four hours and three days. Unfortunately for migraine sufferers, these headaches are often hereditary and recurring. An OTC analgesic combination can be used as a first-line treatment, but this is most effective when used at or near the onset of a headache, or in conjunction with a prescription medication indicated for the treatment of migraines.

Cluster headaches are another variation, and are the least common. Cluster headaches occur more often in men, and happen several times a day, at the same time of day, for a period of time lasting five minutes to an hour. These headaches can cycle for up to a month or longer. This intense pain can be described as a burning or piercing feeling in or around the eye on one side of the head. The patient may also experience eyelid swelling, redness and tearing on one side. Those who suffer from cluster headaches often feel they cannot sit still and will pace during an attack. As with migraines, there are specific medical treatments available to decrease the duration and severity of cluster headaches.

Sinus headaches occur when a person’s sinus passages become inflamed or clogged, causing a feeling of pressure in the face. People often confuse tension or migraine headaches with sinus headaches, as the symptoms overlap. A key difference is that these headaches are usually accompanied by other sinus-related symptoms, such as stuffiness, fever, cough and sore throat. To treat a sinus headache, OTC pain relievers can be used to decrease the pain, while an OTC decongestant can help reduce nasal passage swelling.

“There are a number of very effective over-the-counter first-line treatments available to address the symptoms of headaches,” says Dr. Gary Ruoff, a physician certified in headache management and the author of numerous articles on headaches and pain management. “In fact, I recommend many of the ‘store-brand’ pain relievers sold at leading retailers and pharmacies, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. These products are approved by the FDA and use the exact same active ingredients, but cost significantly less than the brand names.”

Allegan, Mich.-based Perrigo is a pharmaceutical company that manufactures and distributes most of the over-the-counter medications found under store-brand labels at leading national retailers, grocers and pharmacies. According to Perrigo, these products are the primary treatments available over-the-counter for tension, migraine and sinus headaches:

* Pain relievers: acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin
* Migraine relief: acetaminophen, aspirin and caffeine combination pills
* Decongestants: pseudoephedrine, oxymetazoline

“If you continue to experience headaches of any type for any prolonged period of time, I suggest following up with your doctor so he or she may evaluate you for any other underlying conditions and suggest the best course of treatment for your situation,” Ruoff says.

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