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6 Ways to Treat a Headache at Work

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There’s nothing quite as frustrating as a headache at work. At the exact moment you can’t think clearly because of the pain, you somehow need to troubleshoot the situation so you can get on with your to-do list. Since the last thing you want to do when battling a headache is make decisions, we spoke with Dr. Noah Rosen, director of Northwell Health’s Headache Center in Great Neck, New York, for his best strategies on how to tame a headache at work. 

woman rubbing her temples

Apply an ice pack. Any old ice pack will do, even a paper towel wrapped around a handful of cubes from the kitchen ice maker. Place the pack wherever it feels best: Dr. Rosen says some people get relief from applying ice to the neck, while others may prefer to put it directly on the head.

Refill your water cup. “Most people don't drink enough fluids, period,” Dr. Rosen says, and on top of that, people in certain professions without regular access to bathrooms—think teachers, nurses, construction workers, truck drivers—often intentionally dehydrate, which can trigger headaches. Drinking enough water—even once the headache strikes—can really help, he says.

Take medicine. Dr. Rosen says timing your treatment is extremely individual. “It’s a fine balance between treating quickly but not treating too often,” he says. “You want something that works well, works consistently, and is well tolerated, and also something that works not just quickly but prevents the headache from returning within 24 hours.” Keep a pain reliever like Advil at your desk or in your bag for those days when you feel a headache coming on.

Caffeinate. Caffeine is a double-edged sword, Dr. Rosen cautions. “It may benefit acutely for some headaches, but overuse and withdrawal may be an issue, too,” he says. Caffeine is a mild vasoconstrictor, meaning it narrows the blood vessels; that increases the heart rate, which is positive in some instances or can lead to palpitations in others. But if you’re reliant on coffee to get you through the day, start up the coffee maker, or take a few minutes to stretch your legs and walk over to a nearby café, and see if a cup of joe helps.

"The key is to know yourself, and your headache"

woman drinking tea

Try aromatherapy. The key to this tip is to know yourself, and your headache, Dr. Rosen says. If you get migraines from smelling certain odors, aromatherapy might not be right for you. On the other hand, if scents don’t bother you, breathing in essential oils like peppermint could be worth a try. “It’s not well studied,” Dr. Rosen caveats, but some people have had success with this technique.

Do some deep breathing. Dr. Rosen says there is evidence that deep breathing or mindfulness exercises have an effect on reducing headache pain. “Progressive muscle relaxation training, biofeedback—these are validated behavioral interventions,” he notes. If you have a regular breathing or meditation practice, try it. If not, find a place to sit comfortably for a few minutes and try breathing slowly and deeply in through the nose, out through the mouth, keeping your attention focused on your breath. There, feel better?