If you thought a good night’s sleep would relieve that severe headache, you may be disappointed. Some headaches, such as migraines, may last for more than a day. Find out how to cope with, and prevent, a long-running headache.
The average tension headache — the most common type of headache — lasts about four hours. But for some people, severe headaches drag on much longer, sometimes for several days. And these “never-ending headaches” can even cause anxiety.
“Typically, headaches that are longer than a day and disabling are migraines,” says headache expert Peter Goadsby, a neurologist at the University of California San Francisco. “The median duration for migraines is about a day.” In fact, some migraines can last up to 72 hours, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
Severe Headache and Your Quality of Life
Although a long headache may be tiring and frustrating, it’s likely not fatal. “Having an attack that’s longer than a day doesn’t necessarily mean anything dreadful,” he says. But a headache that persists can take a real toll on your quality of life.
For example, migraineurs know that when their headache begins they may lose a day of productive work or family time. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, 90 percent of migraine sufferers can’t work or function during a migraine. Arranging for strategies to deal with that one day might be bearable, but being out of commission for two or even three days can be more difficult. Even the worry over an impending migraine, especially for those whose headaches are long or severe, can interfere with daily life.
Here are some possible causes for a headache that never seems to end:
Rebound headache If you’ve been taking a lot of over-the-counter medications to relieve headache pain, you may experience another kind of low-grade headache every time the medication wears off. These kinds of headaches may seem to come and go.
Depression It can be a contributing factor to long-term headaches in a number of ways. Generalized aches and pains are often among the symptoms of depression, and depression may also interfere with your ability to maintain a healthy routine, such as getting enough sleep and maintaining a healthy diet, which can help prevent migraines and headaches. A study published in October of 2017 in the International Review of Psychiatry showed that people with migraines were two to four times more likely to develop a major mood disorder in their lifetime.
How to Cope
Here are ways to cope with a headache that never seems to end:
Treat the pain. If you don’t have a prescription and are relying on over-the-counter (OTC) medications, follow the dose recommendations carefully. If you find yourself taking these more than two days a week, prescription medication may be a better option. Bear in mind, too, that taking OTC pain medication more than three days per week may trigger rebound headaches. If you have been prescribed a medication for headache or migraine pain, take the amount your doctor has recommended. But check in with your medical team before you take more than the prescribed amount, even if that dose doesn’t appear to be working.
Treat related problems. Attend to other health concerns, such as sleep disturbances, and get any needed depression treatment, such as antidepressants.
Rest and relax. Sleep disorders and migraine appear to have a bidirectional relationship, according to a paper published in Therapeutic Advances in Neurological Disorders in December 2017. Insomnia is more likely if you have migraines, and migraines are more likely if you aren’t getting enough sleep. Even if you can’t fall asleep, resting and using relaxation techniques may help you feel better.
Get the support you need. If your headache lasts for two (or more) days, you may need to enlist some help from family and friends while you recover.
Preventing Long Headaches
The best strategy for headaches is to avoid them if you can. Here are some prevention tips:
Maintain a healthy weight. Although being overweight doesn’t cause migraines, it can increase your chances of developing a migraine, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
Try preventive medications. Talk to your doctor about medications that can prevent migraines, rather than treating the pain when it comes. While preventative treatments rarely eliminate migraine, they can reduce the frequency and severity of attacks.
Avoid triggers. Pay attention to the things that seem to set off a headache. Triggers can include certain foods, drinking too much alcohol or not getting enough sleep. Migraines can also be triggered by change, says Goadsby, so it’s a good idea to stay well-balanced and make healthy choices.
Seek depression treatment. If depression or anxiety is a problem for you, therapy may help. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach that can help with headache prevention and coping. A metanalysis published in the British Journal of Pain in November 2015 showed that CBT can improve some headache-related outcomes.
Though it’s rare, a severe headache can indicate a life-threatening emergency, such as an infection, or bleeding in or around the brain. According to the Mayo Clinic, you should seek immediate medical attention if your headache comes on all of a sudden, appears after an injury, or is accompanied by any of these signs or symptoms:
Weakness and numbness