Why Should You Treat Your Headaches?

A recent WebMD survey found that more than 9 out of 10 doctors don’t suggest “toughing out” headaches. But why?

When a headache is starting, what do you do first — treat right away, or “tough it out?” If you do the latter, you’re not alone: A recent survey of WebMD users* found that 46% of headache sufferers will choose to “tough out” their headaches. But the survey also found that more than 9 out of 10 doctors do not suggest “toughing out” headaches.

The survey also found that one in four headaches are totally debilitating, and almost two out of three sufferers will restrict their activities when suffering a headache — so avoiding headache treatments could mean a lot of missing out. But that’s only one incentive to not wait out the pain. We spoke to Dr. Keri Peterson, an internist in New York City, to hear all the reasons treating a headache beats toughing it out.

“It’s going to impact work life, home life, social life” 

When Dr. Peterson hears patients don’t want to take headache or migraine medication, she says her first question is “why are you suffering unnecessarily?” She discusses the impact of each patient’s pain, explaining how it will make him or her a less effective parent or employee. She says she also warns patients that since migraines can be severe and long lasting, there’s no way of knowing just how long patients may suffer, or how much they’ll miss while they aren’t highly-functioning because of their pain. “I’ll try to focus on the impact it has on their life,” Dr. Peterson says.

“I’ll go over the safety of the drug” 

In Dr. Peterson’s experience, many patients are concerned with a drug’s safety or side effects. For these concerns, she always explains that even the most highly regarded over-the-counter medications list potential side effects, but that this doesn’t make the drug unsafe. Most over-the-counter medications have been around a long time she explains, and have been approved by the FDA. Some may worry about becoming addicted to the medications, but Dr. Peterson says “any medication like Excedrin Migraine is not addictive; it is not that type of painkiller.”

“Always approach pain in a step-wise way”

Besides being safe, over-the-counter medications have the benefits of being accessible, simple and cost-effective, and that’s why they’re the first step in Dr. Peterson’s approach to treating head pain, she says. “With a migraine, I always recommend Excedrin Migraine first” she says; only if the medication doesn’t work does she move to prescription medications. And medicine is best taken at the first sign of a headache or migraine, as Dr. Peterson explains, “the longer you wait to treat, the less likely the medicine will work.”

“It takes less and less to trigger [your headaches]”

Avoiding headache treatments might not only cause you to suffer longer, but it may actually make your headaches, and more likely your migraines, more frequent, says Dr. Peterson. This may be due to the “central sensitization” phenomenon, which Dr. Peterson explains: “If someone is experiencing recurrent pain, changes occur in the brain that create a level of heightened sensitivity so that it takes fewer stimuli to create the same pain response.” This means that even if you “power through” one migraine attack, you may be setting yourself up to face them more often since your body can become even more sensitive to triggers.

Dr. Peterson reminds patients that the primary reason to treat headaches and migraines is quality of life: “Why suffer when you don’t have to?” she says.


*Disclosure: These survey findings were made possible by WebMD. Respondents of the survey were US residents 18 or older whom experienced a headache within the past 12 months, and medical professionals including US Personal Care Physicians, Pharmacists and Neurologists.

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WebMD Professional and Consumer Headache Perceptions (2015); Professional N=802; Consumer N= 2557.



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