Why Should You Treat Your Headaches?

Learn why the proactive approach works better.

When a headache is starting, what do you do first—treat right away, or try to outlast the pain? If you do the latter, you’re not alone: A survey of WebMD users* found that nearly half of headache sufferers will choose to “tough out” their headaches, despite the fact that nine out of 10 doctors do not recommend this strategy.

Avoiding headache treatments will likely cause you to suffer longer, and it could make your headaches—particularly migraines—more frequent, according to Elizabeth Seng, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and headache researcher in New York City. “We know that whatever class of medication you decide to take, the earlier you take that medicine, the better,” she says.

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 treatment could put a damper on your usual routine. But that’s only one incentive to tackle the pain sooner. Dr. Seng shares further thoughts on why treating a headache fast is the best approach. 

It Ends the Negative Feedback Loop

“If someone is experiencing recurrent pain, changes occur in the spinal cord and brain that create a level of heightened sensitivity, so that it takes fewer stimuli to create the same pain response in the future,” says Dr. Seng. This means that “powering through” one migraine could actually set you up for more attacks in the future, since your body becomes more sensitive to the triggers.

Another reason to treat early: Most migraines have what’s called a postdrome—a period of continuing neurologic symptoms that occur even after the head pain passes, says Dr. Seng. “During the postdrome, you’re at increased risk for another bout of head pain,” she says. “When you treat a migraine early, you reduce the length of time you may be at risk for another migraine attack.”

It Improves Your Quality of Life

If your head pain causes you to miss work, cancel plans with friends, or leads to a short temper with your loved ones, you know how badly your life can suffer due to headaches. It doesn’t have to be this way. “There’s no reason to suffer in silence,” says Dr. Seng. “There are a number of interventions we can try, from lifestyle changes to medications and supplements, that ease head pain and can greatly improve your quality of life.”

Another major roadblock to seeking treatment is the patient’s concern over drug safety or side effects, says Dr. Seng. Many times, those worries are ill founded. “Don’t let inaccurate information on the internet dissuade you from finding relief,” says Dr. Seng. “Our toolbox for treating headaches and migraines is large, and it also includes lifestyle changes like stress management, sleep, regular meals, and staying well-hydrated.” Talk to your doctor to find the best treatment options for you.

*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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