Don’t Let Pain be an Obstacle:
What You Should Know
to Prevent and Manage
Headaches and Migraines
By Jack Fraim, M.D.
College. For some, that word alone is synonymous with “headache.” With late nights, early mornings, partying, studying, social obligations and tests, headaches are a given at some point in a student’s college tenure.
For some students, migraines can be a serious concern. These excruciating headaches can slow you down. So how can you know the difference?
Headache vs. Migraine. Believe it or not, there is a difference, and it’s more than just the pain level. Headaches are symptomatic, triggered by something that occurs such as stress, staring at a television or computer screen for too long or not getting enough sleep. Migraines are actually a part of someone’s genetic makeup deep in the neuro system. In fact, about 75 percent of migraine symptoms are inherited. For the most part, migraines don’t have the same external triggers as headaches, although they can be triggered by certain foods.
Why am I Getting Headaches? By far the leading cause in headaches for a college student is stress. However, sinus infections are a second cause. And then there’s the sleep deprivation that comes with college life. Studying all night for the big exam and late nights out with friends is taxing on the body, particularly over time. Therefore, it’s extremely important to get enough rest and hydrate with water in between those visits to your favorite hangouts.
Healthy Diet, Healthy Head. One of the most effective forms of headache and migraine prevention is eating properly. Avoiding food with additives (i.e. fast food) in favor of more oxygen-rich foods (like fruits and vegetables) can help prevent headaches. But don’t worry, caffeine is fine in small doses, although overdoing caffeine can be terrible for the head. The most severe migraines are caused from foods with high contents of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and nitrates. Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and NutraSweet, are also common triggers in severe migraines. As much as you might not want to hear it, alcohol can be linked to head pain as well, and that’s not counting the morning after. Another great way to prevent headaches is staying hydrated and exercising. All you really need is 20 minutes a day of light exercise.
When to Visit the Doctor. Headaches can come and go, so it’s good to be aware of when you might need to visit the doctor. If you get minor to mild headaches every month or two, then over-the-counter medicines such as Advil or Tylenol work fine for treatment. However, if headaches are waking you up at night, occurring more frequently, lasting longer and are beginning to prevent you from doing daily activities, then a doctor’s visit is advised. Some migraines and severe headaches can warrant prescribed medication.
Your college experience doesn’t have to be a big headache. Recognizing the difference between a manageable headache and the severity of a migraine is important, and knowing what causes them is the best form of prevention.
Dr. Jack Fraim is a neurologist with the Seton Brain and Spine Institute and assistant professor of neurology at the Dell Medical School.