Headache Medicine: Medication for Headache Pain Relief

Headaches happen, and they are the most common form of pain and discomfort that people experience at different points in their lives. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), headaches affect 50% of adults, in any given year, globally. However, the pain and discomfort can be managed with headache medicine.

Headache causes vary but are usually a result of stress or an underlying medical disorder such as anxiety, high blood pressure, depression, or migraine. Although it may be challenging to describe head pain, common headache symptoms include throbbing, constant, intermittent or unrelenting pain, eye pain, sensitivity to light or sound and nausea or vomiting for migraine headaches. The pain or discomfort may either be localized (skull or face) or generalized (whole head).

Headache Treatment

Typically, the first headache medicine prescribed for headaches and migraines is pain relievers. Many headache relief medicines are available over-the-counter (OTC), some without a doctor’s prescription while others require a prescription.

Treatment for headaches varies depending on the type of headache and the severity of the accompanying symptoms. Generally, there are three primary types of headaches, which include:

  • Tension headaches: This type causes mild to moderate pain or discomfort on both sides of the head and can last from half an hour to 7 days.
  • Migraine headaches: This type affects only one side of your head but can sometimes affect both and lasts from 4 to 72 hours without treatment.
  • Cluster headaches: This type causes severe pain on one side of the head and usually occurs on an on-and-off basis for several weeks within a few months.

Moreover, a medication used to treat headaches is grouped into three categories, including:

  1. Symptomatic relief

These medications are used to relieve headache symptoms such as pain or nausea and vomiting common in migraine headaches. These are OTC headache medicines that may or may not require a doctor’s prescription.

While taking these drugs, it is recommended to refrain from caffeine-containing beverages and foods as well as medications. Additionally, drugs containing narcotics such as codeine and barbiturates such as butalbital should also be avoided. Most of the drugs in this category including aspirin are not suitable headache medicine for children. Symptomatic relief medicines include:

   Generic Name Brand Name Use Precautions Potential Side Effects
 Aspirin Bayer®, Ecotrin®, Bufferin® Pain reliefNot suitable for children below the age of 14 years Heartburn, peptic ulcer, anaphylaxis, gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding and bronchospasm (construction of causing narrowing of airways)
 Ibuprofen   (NSAID)Advil®, Motrin IB®, Nuprin® Pain reliefNot recommended in pediatric patients GI upset or bleeding, vomiting, nausea, rash, liver damage
  Acetaminophen, paracetamol Tylenol® Pain reliefNot recommended in pediatric patients If taken as direct, there are few side effects including liver damage and changes in blood counts
  Naproxen sodium (NSAID) Aleve®Headache pain relief Not recommended in pediatric patients GI upset or bleeding, vomiting, nausea, liver damage, rash


  1. Abortive therapy

Abortive headache treatment stops a migraine headache once it begins. Generally, these drugs minimize headache symptoms such as nausea/vomiting or sound and light sensitivity. They can be taken by mouth, self-injection, nasal spray or skin patch. Some of the drugs in this category include:

 Generic Name Brand Name Use Precautions Potential Side Effects
 Ergot, dihydroergotamine, mesylate DHE-45®, Injection; Migranal® intranasal Treat headache pain Numbness of fingers and toes, nausea
 Triptans, Sumatriptan succinate, zolmitriptan, rizatriptan, naratriptan HCI, almotriptan malate, frovatriptan succinate, eletriptan hydrobromide Imitrex® injection, oral or intranasal; Zomig®, oral or Intranasal; Maxalt® oral; Amerge®oral; Axert® oral; Frova® oral; Relpax ®oral Treat headache pain Nausea, sleepiness, dry mouth, fatigue, chest pain, dizziness, hot/cold flashes, numbness, and a tightening sensation around the chest or throat.

  1. Preventive therapy

This treatment method is considered if migraine headaches occur more than once per week or if the headache symptoms are severe. Preventive therapy works by lessening the frequency and severity of migraine attacks. However, if the attacks are extremely severe, Botox may be used. Preventive treatment drugs include:

 Generic Name Brand Name Use PrecautionsPotential Side Effects
 Amitriptyline HCI Elavil® Dry mouth, weight gain, fatigue, and constipation
 cyproheptadine HCI Periactin® Drowsiness, weight gain, induce sleep or shorten migraine attack
 Fluoxetine HCI Prozac® Dry mouth, agitation, nausea, and increased appetite
 Propranolol HCITenormin®, Inderal® Weight gain, depression, fatigue, diarrhea and memory problems
 Verapamil, flunarizine Calan®, Isoptin®, Sibelium®Hair loss, dizziness, and constipation
 Anticonvulsants valproic acid Depakote®Weight gain, nausea, liver failure, tremors, drowsiness and may cause birth defects
 Topiramate Topamax® Weight loss, glaucoma, kidney stones
 Gabapentin Neurontin® Well tolerated


Mostly, these types of headache medicines are most effective when used in combination with other recommendations such as lifestyle changes (adequate sleep, usually 7-8 hours, relaxation therapy, exercise, and proper hydration) and dietary modifications. Generally, your doctor will work with you to determine the medication that works best to minimize headaches as well as regulate the dosage to reduce side effects.=

Tips to prevent headaches

The tips below can help you manage headaches and reduce the need to reach for OTC headache medicine every time you have an attack.

  • Adjusting to a healthier lifestyle:  This includes avoiding to skip meals, getting adequate sleep (7-8 hours daily), drinking enough water (6-8 glasses daily) and exercising.
  • Decreasing your use of OTC drugs as excessive use can increase headaches. Instead consider alternative options such as acupuncture, cognitive behavior therapy, meditation, among others.
  • Try natural home remedies to get rid of headaches without medicine such as applying heat or cold compresses, taking herbal tea, avoiding headache triggers, among others.

When to see a doctor

Although headaches are prevalent, it’s essential to take control and seek relevant help if the attacks disrupt your life in general. Your doctor can help you manage the symptoms. However, you should immediately seek medical advice if you experience:

  • A headache after a fall or head injury
  • A severe, abrupt headache
  • Pain that worsens despite treatment
  • Confusion, fever, rash, stiff neck, seizures, numbness, double vision, difficulty speaking

These symptoms may be a result of a more severe condition; hence it’s vital to seek urgent diagnosis and treatment. We offer convenient locations, flexible scheduling, and excellent care and handle other mental health problems as well, such as Neurology, Psychology, Psychiatry or Psychotherapy related.

Call us today and book your appointment at the German Neuroscience Center.