Dealing With Chronic Headache Pain

Did you know that headaches are one of the leading types of chronic pain, along with back pain and arthritis? A headache may sound like a fairly minor ailment, but if you're in pain every day, you know that chronic headaches can be very debilitating.

Getting a migraine or a cluster headache under control is a bit more complicated than taking two aspirin and calling your healthcare provider in the morning. Here's what you should know about the various types of chronic headaches and your treatment options.

Stressed young woman touching head and thinking.
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Types of Chronic Headaches

In order for a headache to be considered chronic, it has to be present for a minimum of 15 days a month for at least three months in a row. This doesn’t mean you must have a headache for two weeks in a row to fit into this diagnosis. Chronic headaches typically come and go, but unfortunately, they are present more often than not. The three most common types are migraines, muscle tension headaches, and cluster headaches.


The exact cause of migraine headaches is still under debate, but most researchers agree that they are neurological in nature. In addition to head pain, migraines are usually accompanied by other symptoms such as visual disturbances, nausea, or a funny taste in the mouth.

Tension Headaches

Formerly believed to be caused by muscle tension in the neck and shoulders, tension headaches may actually be a result of the pain control center in the spine receiving too much input from muscles of the head. A tension headache often feels like a band of pressure around the head and may be accompanied by pain in the neck and shoulders.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are a bit of a medical mystery. They may be caused by vascular changes in the brain or by a series of activations in certain areas in the brain. Cluster headaches are distinct in that they occur in short bursts over time.


Depending on the type of headache, a number of different medications are effective in treating migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches. Some medications are prophylactic, meaning they are taken regularly to ward off a headache before it happens. Others are abortive medications, which are designed to control headache pain once it has begun.

Many chronic headache medications are available over-the-counter, however, some require a healthcare providers prescription. Also, not all of them are taken orally: some chronic headache treatments are available in topical forms such as pain creams or patches. Talk to your healthcare provider to find out which option is best for you.

Complimentary and Alternative Treatments

Many people find relief from chronic headache pain through complementary and alternative treatments. Some of these include:

Results for these approaches to pain management may vary from person to person and depend on the types of headaches you suffer from.

Coping With Chronic Headache Pain

Daily life with chronic headaches can be tough. Sometimes, medications and complementary treatments aren't enough to help you cope. When you have chronic headaches, seeking support may help you get through the hard times.

Support groups and online pain forums are great coping resources. Make sure you have a good relationship with your healthcare provider and that he or she is evaluating the effectiveness of your treatment plan often.

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By Erica Jacques
Erica Jacques, OT, is a board-certified occupational therapist at a level one trauma center.