Acute headaches may not be fatal, but they can disrupt your daily life on a regular basis with pain that is difficult to relieve. The good news is that there are ways to prevent acute headaches from happening (and to treat them when they strike!). Here’s how.
What are acute headaches?
There are two types of headache: primary and secondary. Primary headaches are forms of head pain that are not caused by any other underlying disease or conditions. Secondary headaches occur as a symptom or result of another condition. Determining the type of headache is crucial to successful treatment.
Acute headaches in particular are primary headaches that begin as a slight pain and get worse suddenly. This type of headache includes the three most well-known headaches:
- Tension headaches
- Cluster headaches
Less common types of acute headache include cold-stimulus, benign cough, and benign exertion headaches.
The pain of these headaches depend on which is occurring. Migraine headache pain can be severe, debilitating, and long-lasting, accompanied by visual disturbances, nausea, and fatigue.
Tension headaches are often described as a tight band of pain and pressure on the skull. They most often occur in times of stress.
People who experience cluster headaches describe their pain as maddening. Cluster headaches occur on one side of the face, usually behind the eyes, in periods of attacks that can last days, weeks, or months (with pain-free periods of remission).
What are common acute headache causes?
Acute headaches have many causes that vary depending on the type of headache. Some common causes of each type of acute headache include:
- Daily stress
- Outside stimulus (triggers)
- Sinus infections
- Lack of sleep
Migraine headaches are often most associated with triggers. These triggers can include:
- Hormonal fluctuations
- Reactions to food
- Reactions to light and sound
- Visual stimulus
Cluster headaches may come with some of the visual effects of migraine headaches, but this is where these two headaches diverge. One cause of cluster headaches may be linked to the hypothalamus and its regulation of the biological clock.
Tension headaches are most frequently caused by eye strain and muscle tension in the head, neck, and shoulders. Some people suffer tension headaches due to cold weather or when driving for long periods of time.
However, regular acute headaches may be a sign of a more serious disorder. Consult a doctor if you experience sudden, severe headaches—especially if they occur with a stiff neck, fever, loss of consciousness, or pain in the eye or ear.
How to manage acute headaches
Treatment for acute headaches is two-fold: preventive and abortive.
Preventive treatments are designed to help you identify and eliminate triggers and stop headaches before they start. Abortive treatments ease pain and other symptoms when acute headache pain occurs.
How to prevent acute headaches
Obviously, preventing acute headaches is optimal. There are a variety of lifestyle changes you can make to help with this, such as:
- Change your diet to avoid triggering foods
- Eat on a consistent schedule
- Monitor hormonal changes
- Get plenty of sleep
- Adequately hydrate your body
- Practice meditation or meditative exercise (e.g., yoga or t’ai chi)
- Reduce stress with forest bathing (or any activity in nature)
- Treat any magnesium deficiency
- Stop smoking and drinking
- Keep a headache journal to better understand triggers
There are also medications that can help prevent migraines and cluster headaches. Anti-seizure drugs, beta-blockers, antidepressants, CGRP inhibitors, calcium channel antagonists, and triptans for hormonally-related acute headaches can all help in the prevention of pain.
For tension headaches, many of the same preventative suggestions apply. Make sure to take frequent breaks from driving and working at a screen to prevent muscle strain and to rest your eyes.
How to treat acute headaches
Once an acute headache occurs, treatment varies. Migraine and cluster headaches may not respond to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, but tension headache pain is often eased with this simple remedy.
People who suffer from migraine headaches often find comfort in a quiet, dark room. Cool washcloths on the forehead can ease pain, too. Anti-emetics may help control nausea that often accompanies acute headaches.
Before an acute headache strikes, cognitive behavioral therapy and biofeedback can help teach symptom reduction and coping skills.
Other more interventional therapeutic options for acute headaches include:
- Occipital nerve stimulation
- Cervical facet injections
- Cervical epidural steroid injections
- Occipital nerve blocks
- Sphenopalatine ganglion blocks
- Supratrochlear nerve blocks
- Radiofrequency ablation