Be Happy Without Headaches


The recent National Headache and Migraine Awareness Week was a reminder (if we really needed one) that headache is one of the most common symptoms experienced by humans. It's quite unusual not to have at least the occasional headache. In fact, studies have shown that more than 30% of Australians have a headache at least once a month, and about 5% of our population gets a headache on a daily basis.


Naturally, we're all a lot happier not having a headache. However, according to Professor James Lance, author of Migraine and Other Headaches, if you're happy to start with, headaches are less likely to be a problem. Not surprisingly, that's not the complete answer to avoiding headaches; and we don't really know why some people get headaches more often than others and why some people never get headaches. Professor Lance suggests that it’s probably linked with inheritance of certain chemical transmitters that pass messages in the brain from one nerve cell to another.


Of course, headache is simply a symptom of an underlying cause (fortunately headaches are usually harmless, but understandably they can create apprehension about their origin); and the cause needs to be identified in order to select the most appropriate treatment.


We do know that there are certain factors – trigger factors – which can provoke headache. These triggers aren’t the same for everyone and at different times they may even be different for the same person. However, commonly they include stress, tension and anxiety. Headaches could also be related to hormone level changes; perhaps at the time of periods, during pregnancy or while taking oral contraceptive or hormone replacement therapy. And something as simple as delaying or missing meals, coffee withdrawal or too much alcohol can trigger headaches.


Irregular sleep problems, as in too much or too little sleep, or ‘jet lag’ associated with international travel or shift work, can also trigger headaches; as can weather or altitude changes, strong smells or fumes and stuffy smoke-filled rooms. Certain medicines can trigger headaches as well.


Just about everything you want to know about headache is available by way of the Self Care fact cards – available at pharmacies throughout Australia providing the Pharmaceutical Society’s Self Care health information. There are cards titled Pain Relievers, Headache and Migraine.


Migraine is one of the four most common types of headache. The others are tension headache, sinus headache and cluster headaches.


Migraine is sometimes incorrectly self diagnosed. Migraine is not just a very bad headache. It’s a specific condition usually presenting as a severe throbbing headache, often accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. It is usually felt on one side of the head. Some people have warning signs (so-called aura symptoms), up to an hour before the headache starts. These might be flashing lights or a feeling of tingling or numbness.


Avoiding headaches, especially migraine headaches, is a better option than having to treat them when they occur. This usually involves some minor changes to lifestyle – learning to relax, keeping fit, having a regular sleep pattern and regular exercise, and being moderate with eating and drinking habits. (The Relaxation Techniques fact card may be a good one to have a look at, too).


When medication is required to treat headache, the choices are generally between aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen. Pain relieving products with codeine are not considered suitable to relieve migraine, but the combination of paracetamol with metoclopramide (an anti-nauseant medicine) is a useful non-prescription product now available to treat migraine or “sick headache”.


So when you next have a headache, come in and check with one of our pharmacists for the most appropriate treatment. Meanwhile, keep happy; it might just help.