Andrew Mawhinney, pharmacist and pain expert at Lloydspharmacy, provides some sound advice on treating headaches and pain
What kind of headaches are there?
Headaches are very common and are experienced by over 10 million people in the UK. There are lots of different types of headaches caused by a variety of reasons. The most common type being tension headaches – in fact, 3 out of 4 headaches are tension headaches. Stress is one cause of tension headaches, but there are many others, including drinking too much alcohol, not having enough fluids or simply not getting enough sleep. Migraines and cluster headaches are less common, but they can cause significant pain and disruption to everyday life. The majority of headaches are not serious and can be treated by over-the-counter remedies and also lifestyle changes, such as getting more rest and drinking plenty of fluids.
How can we best treat headaches? I.e. should people worry about constantly taking medication like paracetamol, so what kind of painkillers are best and are there different sorts for different headaches?
Some people prefer to take ibuprofen or diclofenac, but paracetamol is generally considered to be first choice for treating headaches as it has fewer side effects but is still effective. Diagnosed migraine sufferers may benefit from medicines which target the cause of the migraine. Ask your pharmacist or GP if these will be suitable for you. Prolonged use of some over the counter painkillers such as those containing codeine or dihydrocodeine can cause addiction so must not be taken for more than three days. It’s worth noting that taking painkillers for headaches for more than 15 days in a month can actually cause medication-overuse headache. I’d advise anyone whose pain is not responding to painkillers within a day, or anyone getting regular headaches, to speak to a pharmacist to see if they can help.
When should we worry about a headache - ie how can we tell when we've just got a tension headache and when could it be something serious?
Most headaches are painful but not serious. Tension headaches tend to feel like a dull ache with constant pressure around the front, top and sides of the head. However I’d advise anyone whose pain is not responding to painkillers within a day, getting regular headaches, feeling unwell between headaches or if the headache interferes with your day to day activities, to speak to a pharmacist in the first instance. Seek urgent medical advice if you experience a headache after a head injury, if you have other symptoms such as a rash or high temperature, or if you get a sudden onset of a severe headache.
Any warning signs that are important to look out for? See above – if in doubt seek advice.
Is there any good way of dealing with constant pain? I.e. better drugs and so on?
If you are in constant pain speak to a pharmacist or a doctor for help, as they may be able to recommend stronger pain relief and to check what is causing the pain. It is especially important to check with a pharmacist before buying any more painkillers to avoid taking medicines containing the same ingredients which could cause overdose. Medication can help with pain, but there are also other alternatives available such as a TENS machine (passes painless electrical pulses into the body to block pain) or hot or cool packs/ strips. The effectiveness of a TENS machine can depend on the type and severity of the pain, please speak to your pharmacist for further information.
What are the dangers of living with constant pain?
That very much depends on the cause of the pain. The most important thing is to check that there are no underlying causes of the pain. Unfortunately there are a number of chronic conditions that cause pain and many people do suffer on a regular basis. The main thing is not to suffer in silence as there may be some solutions that can help you manage your pain a bit better and getting treatment early may help prevent the pain becoming long term.
Is there anything we can do to help ease constant or long-term pain?
Some pain becomes chronic because they are not treated adequately when the pain first starts. So, again, the main message here is: if you’re in pain, don’t suffer in silence – seek some advice from your pharmacist or doctor.
Lifestyle changes, such as taking regular exercise, finding time to relax, getting plenty of sleep and maintaining a healthy weight, may also help you deal with your pain. Learning to pace your activities so that you do not overdo things on one day may also be of benefit.
Femalefirst Taryn Davies