1. Common Health Problems


"It's tough to keep your face in a book for hours at a time. When I have a lot of reading to do, I take a 10 minute break for every hour I am studying to stop getting headaches."

– Amy C., Michigan State University

Headaches are one of the most common health complaints, not just for college students, but for adults and even children.


  1. Keep a diary of when, where, and why the headaches occur.

  2. Be aware of early symptoms. Try to stop the headache as soon as it begins.

  3. Exercise on a regular basis.

  4. Keep regular sleeping times, as much as you can.

  5. Don't smoke. If you smoke, quit. (See "Tobacco Use – Benefits of Quitting.")

  6. Avoid excess alcohol.

Signs, Symptoms & Causes

Symptoms depend on the type of headache.

Tension or Muscular Headaches

Most headaches are this type. Signs and symptoms:

  1. A dull ache in your forehead, above your ears, or at the back of your head.

  2. Pain in your neck or shoulders that travels to your head.

Tension headaches are caused by tense or tight muscles in the face, neck, or scalp. You can get a tension headache from a number of things:

  1. Not getting enough sleep.

  2. Feeling "stressed out."

  3. Reading for long periods of time or eyestrain.

  4. Doing repetitive work.

  5. Staying in one position for a long time, such as working at a computer.

Migraine Headaches

Migraine headaches happen when blood vessels in your head open too wide or close too tight. Signs and symptoms:

  1. Headaches start on one side of your head. One side of your head hurts more than the other.

  2. Nausea or vomiting.

  3. Light hurts your eyes, noise bothers you. The headache is worse with activity.

  4. After the headache, some people have a drained feeling with tired, aching muscles. Others feel great after the headache goes away.

Migraines can occur with or without an aura. With an aura, spots or flashing lights or numbness occurs for 10 to 30 minutes before the headache. Ten percent of all migraines are this type; 90% occur without an aura.

Migraine headaches occur more often in females than in males and tend to run in families.

Certain things trigger migraine headaches in susceptible people. They include:

  1. Menstruation in females.

  2. Caffeine, alcohol, and/or certain foods, such as aged cheeses, cured meats (hot dogs, ham, etc.).

  3. Stress. Changes in sleeping patterns.

  4. Strenuous exercise.

Sinus Headaches

A sinus headache occurs when fluids in the nose aren't able to drain well and a buildup of pressure occurs in the sinuses. A cold, allergies, and airplane travel can cause a sinus headache. Signs and symptoms include:

  1. Pain in your forehead, cheekbones, and nose. The pain is worse in the morning.

  2. Increased pain when you bend over or touch your face.

  3. Stuffy nose.

Other Causes of Headaches

  1. Analgesic rebound from regular or repeated use of over-the-counter or prescribed pain relievers.

  2. Eating or drinking something very cold, such as ice cream. {Note: To prevent ice cream headaches, warm the ice cream for a few seconds in the front of your mouth.}

  3. Low blood sugar. Hunger.

  4. Cigarette smoke or exposure to chemicals and/or pollution.

  5. Uncorrected vision problems, such as nearsightedness.

  6. Caffeine withdrawal.

  7. Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Syndrome.

A headache can be a symptom of other health conditions. Examples are allergies, depression, infections, and dental problems.


Self-care can treat headaches caused by tension, fatigue, and/or stress. Certain over-the-counter medicines and prescribed medicines can treat migraine headaches.

Biofeedback has helped many people who have suffered from headaches.

Headaches that are symptoms of health conditions are relieved when the condition is treated with success.


  1. Take an over-the-counter medicine for pain as directed on the label. (See "Pain Relievers" in "Over-the-Counter Medication Safety.")

  2. Rest in a quiet, dark room with your eyes closed.

  3. Massage the back of your neck with your thumbs. Work from the ears toward the center of the back of your head. Also, rub gently along the sides of your eyes. Gently rub your shoulders, neck, and jaw. Get a massage.

  4. Take a warm bath or shower.

  5. Place a cold or warm washcloth or OTC hot or cold pack over the area that aches.

  6. Relax. Picture a calm scene in your head. Meditate or breathe deeply.

  7. Avoid things that seem to bring on headaches.

  8. Try using a different pillow and/or sleep position.

  9. If you grind your teeth, tell your dentist or doctor.

  10. For a hangover: After drinking alcohol, take an over-the-counter pain reliever. Eat solid foods. Rest or sleep. Have 2 or more glasses of water before you go to sleep. Drink 2 or more glasses of water when you wake up.

Questions to Ask

Is the headache associated with any of the following?

  1. A head injury.

  2. A blow to the head that causes severe pain, enlarged pupils, vomiting, confusion, or lethargy.

  3. Loss of consciousness.

Has the headache come on suddenly and does it hurt much more than any headache you have ever had?

Does a severe, persistent headache occur with any of the following signs and symptoms of meningitis?

  1. Stiff neck (can't bend the head forward to touch the chin to the chest).

  2. Red or purple rash that doesn't fade when pressure is applied to the skin.

  3. Seizure.

  4. Lethargy.

Has the headache been occurring for more than 2 to 3 days and does it keep increasing in frequency and intensity?

Do you have signs and symptoms of a migraine headache listed above?

Is the headache not relieved by over-the-counter pain relievers and does it occur with any signs and symptoms of a sinus infection?

Has the headache occurred at the same time of day, week, or month, such as with a menstrual period and is it not relieved by over-the-counter pain relievers?

Do you have to take a pain reliever more than 3 times a week for at least 3 weeks for headaches?

Have you noticed the headache only after taking newly prescribed or over-the-counter medicines?