Ever been cruising through the week—grinding out work presentations like it’s your job (wait, it literally is), sweating your stress out at the gym, maintaining your friendships like a pro—when the pulsing pain of a headache brings your whole world to a screeching stop? Odds are the answer is yes. In the United States, a whopping 96% of people will experience a headache at some point in their lives, and if you have a vagina, you’re even more likely to have to deal with this pain in the head.1
According to the World Health Organization, most people can expect to experience at least one headache per year, but not all headaches are created equal. Head pain can throb, stab, or squeeze. It can be constant or intermittent, ranging from barely noticeable to the worst pain of your life. And while the average tension headache clears up within four to six hours, migraine attacks—which are not just headaches—can drag on for up to 72 hours.2
Where does this pain actually come from? The weird thing is, there are actually no pain receptors—called nociceptors—in your brain tissue. So, the sensation of pain occurs when nociceptors are activated in supporting brain structures (shoutout to blood vessels, muscle fibers, cranial and spinal nerves, and the brain’s outer membranes, known as the meninges.)1
With that said, most headaches have more than one cause, with genetic and environmental factors contributing to differences in how individuals experience head pain. Let’s talk about what kinds of headaches to know and how to get rid of them as quickly as possible.
What are the most common types of headaches?
The Third Edition of the International Classification of Headache Disorders (ICHD-III) is a tool used by physicians to diagnose headaches. It sorts primary headache disorders—headaches that can’t be explained by a condition, illness, or injury—into these four categories:
- Tension-type headache (TTH): This is the most common type of headache, and typically only causes mild to moderate pain. They strike on both sides of the head and are described as a dull, pressing, or band-like tightening.2
- Migraine: Migraine is a neurological condition that can cause head pain that’s often described as throbbing, and may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sound, smell, or touch. Migraine attacks affect around 12% percent of people.3
- Trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias (TACs): TACs are rarer than migraine and TTH. They include cluster headache, which causes excruciating pain near the eye or temple that intensifies within minutes and lasts up to three hours, according to an older study published in the journal Neurology.4
- Other primary headache disorders: While rare, other primary headache disorders include primary stabbing headache, which causes sudden, stabbing pain, and new daily persistent headache, which appears out of the blue, is daily and continuous and lasts for more than three months.
Secondary headache disorders are also common, but they’re a symptom of other problems like altitude sickness, infection, or caffeine withdrawal. When it comes to secondary headaches, treating the underlying condition should help with headache relief.
What to try first to get rid of a headache fast
The average headache won’t put you out of commission for hours on end. “It’s a mild-to-moderate headache that really does not limit you from any activity,” Rashmi Halker Singh, MD, a board-certified neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, tells SELF. “You probably don’t think twice about it. You’d probably never even think to see a doctor for it.”
These types of headaches don’t require much in the way of treatment. In fact, they often go away on their own without any intervention at all. With that said, if a mild-to-moderate headache is bothering you, simple, at-home remedies and natural approaches can usually help, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Try one or more of the following:
Apply ice or heat.
If you’re used to sitting hunched over a computer all day, you may start to notice your shoulders creeping up as your stress levels rise. This muscle tension can trigger a—you guessed it—tension-type headache. So one way to combat the pain is to relieve that tension by applying a hot or cold compress to your head, neck, or shoulders. This may be enough to relieve both your muscle and head pain.
Whether you had one too many margaritas last night or you left your trusty water bottle at home (you know, the giant one with motivational phrases), dehydration can be a big player for headaches. Upping your water intake could be all it takes to ease your symptoms. It’s best to sip water at regular intervals throughout the day to stave off dehydration, and the ugly headaches that follow.
Have a snack.
You don’t have to tell us twice (reaches for the trail mix), but eating a snack between meals—like fresh fruits, a handful of nuts, or vegetables with hummus—may help prevent or alleviate a headache. That’s because when your body has low blood sugar, meaning you don’t have enough glucose in the blood for energy, it can trigger a headache.
Take a break.
Remember that muscle tension we talked about? Stress is a major contributor to both muscle tension and headaches, and sometimes the best medicine is taking a step back. Try scheduling short breaks into your day to take a walk, look out the window, pet your dog, or grab a cup of coffee (as long as that isn’t a headache trigger for you).
Pause to stretch.
Don’t just take a break to stretch when a headache is already starting to creep in. It’s important to stretch throughout the day, especially if you work at a desk. If you’re not sure how to stretch, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a list of workplace stretches and exercises to get you started.