- There are three primary types of headaches: tension, cluster, and migraine—all of which have their own risk factors.
- While headaches can be painful and disruptive, prevention strategies can reduce how often you're experiencing headaches and improve symptoms.
- Common preventative measures include avoiding triggers, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and managing stress.
Headaches are one of the most common neurological (brain-related) conditions worldwide. While everyone can experience a headache from time to time, frequent occurrences may indicate that you have a headache disorder. There are three primary types of headaches: tension headaches, cluster headaches, and migraine.
Most headaches are acute (meaning, they appear suddenly and are usually short-term) and resolve on their own without the need for medical attention. But sometimes, headaches can become chronic, or long-term, conditions. Whether you have an underlying condition that causes your headaches or your pain is triggered by lifestyle factors, chronic headaches can develop for various reasons.
While symptoms can often be uncomfortable, the good news is that there are some things you can do to reduce the severity of your symptoms and how often you’re experiencing headache episodes. This involves understanding the risk factors, incorporating lifestyle changes, and following your treatment plan to keep symptoms at bay.
Who Is Most at Risk?
While everyone can experience headaches at some point, some people may be at an increased risk of experiencing symptoms. A variety of factors, including underlying conditions, lifestyle habits, and demographics may raise your risk of having headaches. Each type of headache also has its own set of risk factors.
Risk Factors for Tension Headaches
Tension headaches cause mild to moderate pain on both sides of your head. Those who experience tension headaches describe the feeling as tightness around the temples and head. The following factors may increase your risk of having symptoms of tension headaches:
- Being assigned female at birth
- Being between the ages of 15 and 35
- Experiencing physical stress or muscle tension
- Having depression or anxiety
- Not getting enough sleep or waking up throughout the night
- Skipping meals throughout the day
Risk Factors for Cluster Headaches
Cluster headaches are not as common as tension headaches or migraine. Unfortunately, cluster headaches often cause the most severe set of symptoms. You may be most at risk for developing a cluster headache if you:
- Were assigned male at birth
- Drink alcohol
- Smoke cigarettes or use tobacco products
- Experience trouble sleeping through the night
- Have a history of head trauma or brain injury
Risk Factors for Migraine
Migraine is a headache disorder that can cause several symptoms aside from pain including light and sound sensitivity, aura (visual hallucinations), and nausea. Factors that can increase your risk of migraine include:
- Being assigned female at birth
- Being between the ages of 30 and 39
- Experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression
- Living with epilepsy (a condition that causes seizures)
- Menstruating or experiencing changes in hormone levels
- Having sleep difficulties, such as insomnia or waking up often during the night
- Overusing many pain medications or not taking medications as directed
- Not following your treatment plan
- Missing meals
- Drinking too much alcohol or caffeinated beverages
- Being exposed to bright lights, loud noises, or potent smells
Genetics play a significant role in several health conditions, and headaches are no stranger to this phenomenon. If you have a family history (e.g., specifically an immediate family member like a parent or sibling) of a headache disorder, you have a higher risk of developing tension headaches, cluster headaches, and migraine yourself.
Notably, one rare form of migraine—familial hemiplegic migraine—is a condition that runs in families. Familial hemiplegic migraine causes severe symptoms, including weakness on one side of the body, light and sound sensitivity, and nausea and vomiting.
So far, researchers have found four genes (CACNA1A, ATP1A2, SCN1A, and PRRT2) that can raise your risk of developing this form of migraine. This condition follows a genetic autosomal dominant pattern—meaning that you can develop this type of migraine if you have just one parent who has one of the four genes for familial hemiplegic migraine.
How to Reduce Risk
There are several measures you can take to prevent headache episodes and reduce symptoms. How you choose to prevent episodes will depend on the type of headache disorder you have, your symptoms, and your triggers. Generally, a combination of lifestyle changes may help you manage your symptoms.
Many types of headaches—especially migraine—are set off by certain triggers. Every person experiences triggers differently.
A key aspect of prevention involves identifying what your triggers are and taking the right steps to avoid them. A good way to learn about your triggers is to keep a log of what you think may be causing your episodes, such as meals you’re eating, the environment you’re in, and other habits or activities you participate in before the onset of symptoms.
Common triggers of headaches may include:
- Emotional stress
- Hormonal changes in people assigned female at birth, such as menstruation or taking birth control pills
- Skipping meals
- Weather changes
- Sleeping problems
- Strong odors
- Bright lights
- Foods and drinks that contain caffeine
Keep in mind: the above triggers are not an exhaustive list. You might experience other triggers. What’s important to remember is that once you’ve identified a trigger, you should try avoiding the trigger to see if your headache episodes lessen or go away altogether. Keeping a record of what is and is not succeeding in stopping your episodes is not only helpful for you, but also for your healthcare provider as they help you look for treatment options to reduce symptoms.
Sleep disturbances, like waking up in the middle of the night, having insomnia, or not getting enough sleep can all cause headaches. That said, getting enough sleep and sleeping on time is one effective way of preventing headaches.
Some tips for good sleep include:
- Aiming for at least seven hours of sleep per night
- Going to bed and getting up at the same times each day
- Keeping your bedroom calm, quiet, cool, and free of distractions
- Avoiding screen time (e.g., watching TV or scrolling on your phone) before bed
- Limiting coffee and alcohol at least three hours before sleeping
- Getting exercise during the day to induce sleep
Research suggests that not drinking enough water can lead to the onset of headache symptoms. How much water you need will depend on a variety of factors, like your assigned sex at birth, weight, and activity levels.
Generally, experts recommend that females and males should drink at least 91 and 125 ounces of water each day, respectively. Keep in mind: you know your body best. So, drink as much water as you need to sustain your overall well-being and avoid feeling dehydrated.
Getting enough exercise can also help reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches. Exercise is key in helping manage stress—a common trigger of headaches—and promoting better sleep. Research also notes that staying physically active can reduce feelings of anxiety and depressive moods.
In a review article published in The Journal of Headache and Pain, regular aerobic exercise was found to reduce the number of migraine headache days per month (by between 0.3 to 0.6 days per month) and shorten the length of migraine episodes by 20 to 27%, while also easing pain intensity.
How much exercise you need will depend on your lifestyle habits and goals. But, experts recommend that a minimum of 150 minutes (or 2.5 hours) of light to moderate activity a week is a good place to start before adding to the frequency and intensity of your workouts.
Stress is a common trigger of headaches, so it’s a good idea to find ways to manage stress effectively. Everyone experiences stress and there’s no way to eliminate all stress from your daily life. But learning healthy coping strategies can reduce stress and improve headache symptoms.
You may consider trying the following stress management techniques:
- Take part in relaxing activities, such as journaling, reading, or doing activities that you enjoy
- Schedule downtime for yourself and quality time with your loved ones
- Say “no” to plans and tasks that may be causing more stress
- Get in touch with a mental health professional to talk through any problems or stressors that could be making your headaches and overall health worse
Trying Complementary Methods
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) can also help you reduce symptoms and prevent the frequency of headache episodes. Some common CAM therapies include:
- Yoga: This activity, which involves stretching and breathing exercises, has been shown to reduce migraine and other types of headache episodes. In one study, five sessions a week for six weeks alongside other methods helped to reduce the frequency and intensity of symptoms compared to prevention methods alone.
- Acupuncture: Based on Ancient Chinese medicine, acupuncture places small needles on different body parts to stimulate the flow of energy, or “chi.” Some studies have found that four weeks of regular acupuncture sessions helped lower the frequency of migraine attacks.
- Biofeedback: A form of relaxation training, biofeedback uses specialized devices to measure your physical response to stress. This helps you recognize when you’re experiencing stress and employ coping strategies to lower your physical response to stress. Researchers have found this technique to improve headache symptoms.
If you receive a diagnosis of a headache disorder, your healthcare provider may recommend certain medications to reduce symptoms. It’s of utmost importance to follow your treatment plan and take medications as directed. The following medications can help improve symptoms:
- Inderal (propranolol)
- Lopressor (metoprolol tartrate)
- Elavil (amitriptyline)
- Topamax (topiramate)
- Depakote (valproic acid)
- Aimovid (erenumab)
Discuss With Your Healthcare Provider
If you’re continuing to experience symptoms, despite following your treatment plan and incorporating prevention strategies, it may be time to talk to your healthcare provider about your headache concerns. It’s especially important to visit your provider if symptoms begin to disrupt your daily life.
In such cases, your provider may adjust your treatment plan or advise you on additional preventative measures you can take to reduce symptoms. Remember: do your best to not make any major lifestyle or medical changes without talking to your healthcare provider.
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