Women’s Health: Headaches

The most common type of headaches women get include:

  • Tension or muscular headaches. Unconscious tensing of the face, neck or scalp muscles produces a dull, relentless ache. You feel the pressure in your forehead, temples or around the back of the head where the muscles of your upper back attach. Lack of sleep or stress can trigger tension headaches. Doing tedious work or reading a lot may cause muscular headaches. This type of headache can be treated with self-care procedures. (See page 33).
  • Migraine headaches. These tend to run in families and affect nearly 30% of all women at some time. A migraine usually starts as a throbbing pain on one side of the head and then spreads throughout the face and head. It can be severe and last for several days. Vomiting, nausea, blurred vision, flashing spots, sensitivity to light and ringing in the ears can accompany migraines.

Things that can trigger migraine headaches in women include:

  • Changing hormone levels.
  • Use of birth control pills.
  • Days before, during and after menstrual periods.
  • Food allergies.
  • Psychological stress.
  • Inadequate diet, such as skipping meals.

Migraines occur less often during pregnancy (especially the second half) and often disappear during menopause. Some women though, may get migraines for the first time during menopause. Migraines can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers and other self-care procedures (See page 33) or may need prescription medicine.

Sinus headaches are characterized by pain in the face covering the sinus areas. These areas are located in the upper cheekbones, forehead and the bridge of your nose. Inflammation and fluid buildup cause the pain and bending over or touching the affected area seems to aggravate it. Colds, allergies, air pollution and other respiratory problems can trigger a sinus headache. Sinus headaches can often be treated with self-care procedures or by using over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants, etc. (See self-care procedures on page 33). Prescription medicine may also be needed if these measures don’t bring relief or if you have a sinus infection that requires antibiotics.

Other common headaches women get are those linked to the menstrual cycle, menopause, viral infections, low blood sugar and uncorrected vision. Fortunately, these common types are not serious. Headaches that result from a blood clot, tumor or ruptured blood vessel (aneurysm) in the head are serious and need immediate attention. These headaches can be severe, last several days, gain in intensity and have other symptoms.

Questions to ask:

Is the headache associated with a serious head injury?Yes: Seek Care
Is the headache associated with pain in one eye, blurred vision, double vision, slurring of speech, mental confusion, personality change or problem in moving arms or legs?Yes: Seek Care
Is the headache associated with fever, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and a stiff neck?Yes: Seek Care
Has the headache come on suddenly and is it more serious than others you have had?Yes:See Doctor
Has the headache occurred at the same time of day, week or month?Yes:Call Doctor

Self-Care Procedures

For on-the-spot headache relief:

  • Rest in a quiet, dark room with your eyes closed.
  • Massage the base of your skull with your thumbs. Work from the ears toward the center of the back of your head. Massage both temples gently.
  • Take hot baths.
  • Place cold washcloths over your eyes.
  • Take the recommended dose of aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen sodium. Do so at the beginning of the headache.

    [Note: Do not give aspirin or any medication containing salicylates to anyone 19 years of age or younger unless directed by a physician due to its association with Reye’s Syndrome, a potentially fatal condition.]

  • Practice a relaxation technique, such as visualizing a serene setting, meditating or deep breathing.
  • Get a gentle foot massage. Acupuncture points for headaches are found in the feet.
  • Keep a headache journal that records when, where and why headaches seem to occur.
  • Note early symptoms and try to abort a headache in its earliest stages.
  • Exercise regularly. This seems to keep headaches at bay.
  • Avoid scents that you know trigger headaches for you. These may be perfume, tobacco smoke, paint, varnish or gasoline fumes.
  • Eat 5-6 small meals instead of 3 large meals. Don’t skip meals and avoid sweets to ward off low blood sugar.
  • Avoid foods known to trigger headaches in sensitive people. Particularly troublesome food items may include:

    • Aged, canned, cured or processed meat such as bologna, ham, hot dogs and sausage.
    • Alcohol, especially wines.
    • Aspartame (artificial sweetener in NutraSweetâ).
    • Bananas (limit to 1/2 banana a day).
    • Caffeine from coffee, tea, cola and other soft drinks, chocolate, cocoa and some medications.
    • Cheese, especially aged ones such as cheddar.
    • Citrus fruit (limit to 1/2 cup a day).
    • Food additives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG).
    • Nuts and peanut butter.
    • Onions.
    • Pickled and preserved foods such as olives.
    • Sauerkraut.
    • Sour cream.
    • Soy sauce.
    • Vinegar.

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Written by American Institute for Preventive Medicine

Explore Wellness in 2021