Getting a headache every so often is a right royal pain, but getting them more often than not can be truly debilitating. It can lead to days off work, an end to your social life, and just general misery. Believe me, I've been there. Thankfully, there are several ways to cope or even fix the problem full stop. Here's what to do if you get headaches every day and can't seem to find a way out.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), headaches are one of the most common nervous system disorders. ("Patients with headaches are one of the most common presentations I see as a GP," Dr MayJay Ali, tells me.) Having a headache for 15 or more days each month — otherwise known as chronic headaches — is thought to affect between 1.7 and four percent of the world's adult population, the WHO reports.
These kinds of headaches can last for hours and are split into four categories, reports the Mayo Clinic. "Chronic migraines" usually result in a throbbing sensation and moderate to severe pain. Nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound are also common symptoms.
Then there's "chronic tension-type" headaches, which cause mild to moderate pain and give a tightening sensation. "New daily persistent headaches" are similar, but often develop suddenly. Finally, there's "hemicrania continua," which are headaches that affect only one side of your head, and are continuously painful.
The NHS states that most headaches will go away on their own. But if you're experiencing one almost every day, there is likely to be a cause. Unfortunately, that cause may relate to your lifestyle — something that no one wants to hear.
"Patients with persistent or severe headaches often worry that there is a sinister underlying cause, like a brain tumour," says Dr Ali. "If a patient is having regular headaches, daily headaches, or worsening headaches, they should consult with their GP. This is to ensure there is no worrying cause (most of the time there isn't) and then to formulate a plan to manage the headaches."
Tension-type headaches "can be caused by anything that isn't good for us," she continues, including stress, diet, and sleep, or lack of it. "Because there is tension in the scalp, if people get them frequently, they can sometimes worry more about the headache, which then increases the tension and worsens the headache. It can therefore be a vicious cycle to try and get them under control."
While you can purchase over-the-counter painkillers to remedy a headache, becoming reliant on tablets isn't likely to help. This is because, as Self reports, overuse of medication can actually cause more headaches, known as "rebound" or "medication overuse" headaches. If you end up with these, "reduce your painkiller use slowly," says Dr Ali, as a sudden halt can make the headaches worse. "It's a little bit like coming off caffeine. Your headache may be worse for a few days before things get better."
The simplest way to control your headaches is to figure out what's causing them in the first place. This isn't a short process, but will allow you to see exactly when — and potentially why — your headaches come on. Invest in a journal or diary, Dr Ali recommends, and keep note of when you get a headache along with everything you did during that day. This should include your dietary choices, levels of exercise, working hours, and any other events.
Visiting your GP with such a diary can help your doctor narrow down the potential cause of your daily headaches. If the doctor and you believe them to be stress-related, try relieving yourself of that stress. If this is impossible — for example, because it's related to your job — try out relaxation techniques or book a course of cognitive behavioural therapy that aims to help you cope with any anxiety. Between 30 and 60 percent of patients find such treatment successful, reports the American Migraine Foundation.
Diet-related headaches are simpler to control. Ensure you remain sufficiently hydrated and avoid known headache triggers such as caffeine and alcohol. Eating regularly, rather than falling into the trap of skipping meals, may also help. Another cause of headaches can be eyesight, says Dr Ali. If you're constantly looking at a screen and straining your eyes, book yourself an appointment with an optician to check that your eyes are healthy and that you don't need glasses.
There are a number of other factors to take into consideration, and some are really not that obvious, according to the NHS. Take your mouth, for example. If you're experiencing headaches and teeth or jaw pain, a dentist is your go-to contact. Sleep, too, can be the cause of persistent headaches. It could be that your sleep pattern is out of sync or that you're sleeping too much in a bid to get rid of the head pain.
As you've probably guessed, there isn't one universal cause of chronic headaches. Each and every person's triggers can be different and specific remedies may not work for one person the way they work for another.
A trip to your GP is also a good idea, especially if any of the following applied to you: you're experiencing two or more headaches a week, you're using painkillers pretty regularly, you feel that you need more than the recommended dose of painkiller, or you've noticed your headache pattern has changed or worsened.