Is Ibuprofen for Headaches the Best Solution? There May Be More Effective Ways to Ease Your Pain

It’s important to know why you get headaches in order to cure them.

By Erin Hays
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The Natural Way to Get Rid of Headaches (2:29)

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Headaches are a common occurance and most people have the same solution for them. Popping ibuprofen, or a similar medication, is a quick fix when there’s no time to deal with the pain. But is there a better way to handle them? Whether the pain is minor or severe, is ibuprofen for headaches really the best solution?

In the United States, approximately 15% of adults complain about headaches or migraines, according to a 2018 survey. Chances are, when you get a headache you’re focused on how to make it stop, instead of what’s causing the problem in the first place. It’s important to pay attention to both for optimal headache management and treatment. By learning what type of headache you have, and noting when you get them, you can figure out how to treat it and understand when it might be time to see a doctor.

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What Type of Headache Do You Have?

Migraines and tension headaches are two well-known types of headaches. They’re both primary headaches, which are triggered by lifestyle factors or genetics. Secondary headaches are the source of an underlying health issue — such as a sinus infection, concussion, dehydration, etc.

Habits such as drinking alcohol, eating certain foods, changes in or lack of sleep, poor posture, and stress can activate pain-sensitive nerves in the brain which can cause a tension headache or migraine. Some people also carry genes that make them more likely to develop such headaches. In fact, according to the American Migraine Foundation, if one or both of your parents suffer from migraines, there is a 50% to 75% chance that you will too.

The biggest difference between a migraine and tension headache is the pain. With a migraine you’ll experience extreme pain, usually on one side of your head. The throbbing and pulsing sensation can last for hours or days and can cause nausea, or even vomiting, as well as sensitivity to light. A tension headache is just mild to moderate head pain; it’s a generic headache.

Surprising Things That Can Give You a Headache

There are less common causes of headaches that you may not know. Changes in barometric pressure — which happen during storms, temperature extremes, and lightning strikes — may alter levels of certain chemicals in the brain, including serotonin, and can cause headaches. Eye strain can also cause headaches. Things like wearing the wrong prescription glasses, watching the road all day while driving long distances, and staring at a computer too long can give you a headache.

The third unusual cause of headache might actually be your hairstyle. There are extremely sensitive nerves underneath your hair follicles and in your scalp, so wearing a tight hairstyle or hair accessory can result in a headache. A high ponytail is a classic headache-inducing style, but you can also get these types of headaches by wearing tight braids or a headscarf.

How to Treat Your Headache

Should You Take Medication?

While ibuprofen might work every once in a while, it can actually cause headaches to be worse down the line. Medication overuse (taking meds more than two to three days per week) can cause a chronic daily rebound headache that cannot be treated with more medication. There are certain medications doctors can prescribe to help treat headaches that will not cause rebound headaches.

If over-the-counter medications have caused side effects for you in the past, it might be worth it to consider magnesium, which has been used in pill form to prevent headaches — specifically migraines. While there isn’t definitive research on whether or not a magnesium medication regimen is a viable solution for all migraines, it might be beneficial to add magnesium-rich foods to your diet instead. These foods include avocados, nuts (particularly cashews), and bananas.

Before starting any medication (including over-the-counter) or making changes to your daily diet, it is always best to consult with your doctor first.

Figure Out the Trigger

The first step in treating a headache is figuring out the trigger (if there is one) and avoiding it. For example, some people are sensitive to certain foods such as cheese, chocolate, smoked fish, and cured meats. Cutting these foods out of your diet may significantly improve and reduce your headaches. The Association of Migraine Disorders created a list of “migraine-safe foods” to guide a headache sufferer’s food choices. Keeping a log of when you have headaches and the surrounding events may help you and your doctor identify a pattern of triggers. An example of a headache log can be found here.

If you think a ponytail might be the culprit, adjust your hairstyle. If stress is your trigger, find ways to relax and unwind to keep yourself, and your brain, calm.

A Natural Solution

Peppermint oil is a common home remedy for headaches. Some people claim applying diluted peppermint oil to the temples can help relieve tension headaches and migraines. While there is little academic research supporting the medicinal value of peppermint oil, it does contain menthol, which may help muscles relax and ease pain. If you are going to try this at home, you should dilute peppermint oil in either coconut or olive oil — add five drops of peppermint oil to one ounce of coconut or olive oil.

Treating Secondary Headaches

All of the above tricks might work if there’s no medical underlying cause for your headache. However, if a headache is the result of another condition causing inflammation in the pain-sensitive structures of the head, different treatment is needed. Any number of conditions, varying greatly in severity, may cause secondary headaches. Some of the more common ones include a sinus infection, dehydration, hangovers, and high blood pressure. The only way to alleviate secondary headaches is to treat the underlying condition, which is a conversation to have with your doctor. There are more severe causes of secondary headaches, like a brain aneurysm, but these are rare. Most likely, if you have a headache, it’s a primary headache or one of the common secondary reasons listed above.

When to See a Doctor

If you’ve tried home remedies, medication, diet changes, and de-stressing techniques and are still falling victim to frequent, painful headaches, it’s time to see a doctor to make sure there isn’t a more serious underlying condition. Your doctor is the person who can give you the best medical advice to help ease your pain, so it’s important to use them as a resource if necessary.

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Article written by Erin Hays