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Section I–Common Health Problems - Headaches

HealthyLife® Students' Self-Care Guide

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 Section I–Common Health Problems

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“It’s tough to
keep your face in a book for hours at a time. When I have a lot of reading
to do, I take a 10 minute break for every hour I am studying to stop
getting headaches.”

C., Michigan State University

Headaches are one of the most common health
complaints, not just for college students, but for adults and even children.


Keep a diary of when, where, and why the
headaches occur.

Be aware of early symptoms. Try to stop
the headache as soon as it begins.

Exercise on a regular basis.

Keep regular sleeping times, as much as
you can.

Don’t smoke. If you smoke, quit. (See
Don’t Use Tobacco Products”.)

Avoid excess alcohol; it can cause a

Signs, Symptoms & Causes

Symptoms vary depending on the type of

or Muscular Headaches

Most headaches are this type. Signs and

A dull ache in your forehead, above your
ears, or at the back of your head

Pain in your neck or shoulders that
travels to your head

Tension headaches are caused by tense or
tight muscles in the face, neck, or scalp. You can get a tension headache
from a number of things:

Not getting enough sleep

Feeling “stressed out”

Reading for long periods of time or

Doing repetitive work

Staying in one position for a long time,
such as working at a computer


Migraine headaches happen when blood vessels
in your head open too wide or close too tight. Signs and symptoms are:

Headaches that start on one side of your
head and one side of your head hurts more than the other

You feel sick to your stomach or vomit.

You see spots or zigzag flashes of light
before the headache.

Light hurts your eyes, noise bothers
you, and the headache is worse with activity.

After the headache, some people have a
drained feeling with tired, aching muscles. Others feel great after the
headache goes away.

Migraines can occur with or without an aura.
An aura is symptoms a person experiences, such as spots or flashing lights,
or numbness for 10 to 30 minutes prior to the headache. Ten percent of all
migraines are this type; 90% occur without an aura.

Migraine headaches occur more often in
females than in males and tend to run in families.

Certain things trigger migraine headaches in
susceptible people. They include:

Menstruation in females

Caffeine, alcohol, and/or certain foods,
such as aged cheeses, cured meats (hot dogs, ham, etc.)

Stress or changes in sleeping patterns

Strenuous exercise


A sinus headache occurs when fluids in the
nose aren’t able to drain well and a buildup of pressure occurs in the
sinuses. A cold, allergies, dirty or polluted water, and airplane travel can
cause a sinus headache. Signs and symptoms are:

Pain in your forehead, cheekbones, and
nose that is worse in the morning

Increased pain when you bend over or
touch your face

Stuffy nose

Causes of Headaches

Analgesic rebound from regular or
repeated use of over-the-counter or prescribed pain relievers

Eating or drinking something very cold,
such as ice cream. {Note: To prevent ice cream headaches, warm the ice
cream for a few seconds in the front of your mouth.}

Low blood sugar; hunger

Cigarette smoke, or exposure to
chemicals, and/or pollution

Uncorrected vision problems, such as

Caffeine withdrawal

Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ)

A headache can be a symptom of other health
conditions. Examples are allergies, depression (see
signs and symptoms of depression),
infections, and dental problems.


Self-care can be used for headaches caused
by tension, fatigue, and/or stress. Over-the-counter Excedrin Migraine or
prescribed medicines can be used to treat migraine headaches.

Biofeedback has helped many people who have
suffered from headaches.

Headaches that are symptoms of health
conditions are relieved when the condition is treated with success.

Questions to Ask

Is the headache associated with any of
the following?

  • A head injury

  • A blow to the head that causes severe
    pain, enlarged pupils, vomiting, confusion, or lethargy

  • Loss of consciousness

Has the headache come on suddenly and
does it hurt much more than others you have had?

Does a severe, persistent headache occur with any of the following
signs and symptoms of meningitis
  • Stiff neck (can't bend the head forward to touch the chin to the
  • Red or purple rash that doesn't fade when pressure is applied to
    the skin
  • Seizure
  • Lethargy

Has the headache been occurring for
more than 2 to 3 days and does it keep increasing in frequency and

Do you have signs
and symptoms of a migraine headache
listed above?

Is the headache not relieved by
over-the-counter pain relievers and does it occur with any
signs and symptoms of a sinus

Has the headache occurred at the same
time of day, week, or month, such as with a menstrual period and is it
not relieved by over-the-counter pain relievers?

Do you have to take a pain reliever
more than 3 times a week for at least 3 weeks for headaches?

Have you noticed the headache only
after taking newly prescribed or over-the-counter medicines?



Take an over-the-counter medicine for
pain as directed on the label. (See “OTC Medications for "Pain relief".)

Rest in a quiet, dark room with your
eyes closed.

Massage the back of your neck with your
thumbs. Work from the ears toward the center of the back of your head.
Also, rub gently along the sides of your eyes. Gently rub your
shoulders, neck, and jaw. Get a massage.

Take a warm bath or shower.

Place a cold or warm washcloth,
whichever feels better, over the area that aches.

Relax. Picture a calm scene in your
head. Meditate or breathe deeply.

Avoid things that seem to bring on

Don’t grind your teeth.

For a hangover: After drinking alcohol,
have 2 or more glasses of water before you go to sleep; take an
over-the-counter pain reliever; eat solid foods; rest or sleep. Drink 2
or more glasses of water when you wake up.

For Information, Contact:

National Headache Foundation

6th edition. American Institute for Preventive Medicine
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December 08, 2005