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When to See a Doctor About Your Headaches

June 13, 2023

A young woman holds her temples as she struggles with a headache.

Whether it’s a throbbing pain, a stabbing sensation or a feeling like your head is in a vice, almost everyone has dealt with a headache. Gary Belt, MD, a neurologist with Atlantic Health System, shares his advice on how to manage the two most common headaches and when to see your doctor.

Tension headaches

Most people have experienced a tension headache, which can feel like a band of pressure or pain around your head, or pain down the back of your neck. It’s typically felt on both sides of your head and the pain is more annoying than debilitating. Tension headaches are often caused by stress and poor posture.

“There’s no way to lead a stress-free life, but we can try to take better care of ourselves,” says Dr. Belt. “Take breaks, stretch every hour and make the time to move around or go for a walk when you can.”

Over-the-counter medications including ibuprofen and naproxen sodium can work wonders for the occasional tension headache. However, Dr. Belt cautions people who have frequent headaches not to take over-the-counter pain relievers daily. Medication overuse can quickly become the cause of your headaches.


Migraines are often accompanied by light and noise sensitivity, as well as nausea, vomiting and pain. Typically felt on one side of your head, migraines can last for hours or even days. Most people who suffer from migraines have a family history of the condition, and women experience them more often than men.

To prevent migraines, Dr. Belt recommends a consistent sleep routine and eating at regular times. Common migraine triggers include chocolate, caffeine, MSG, food preservatives, alcohol and changes in altitude or weather.

“Interestingly, you don’t need to have a knock-down, drag-out headache to have a migraine,” he says. “Some people are surprised when they don’t have severe pain, but still have sensitivity to light and sound, as well as nausea.”

Treatments for migraines include daily preventive medications, as well as rescue medications to stop a migraine once it begins. Dr. Belt says that over-the-counter medications aren’t the best for relieving migraine symptoms.

When to see your doctor

Dr. Belt stresses that you should make an appointment to see your physician if you are frequently missing work or school due to headache pain. Seek emergency treatment if you are having the worst headache of your life or if you experience weakness in addition to a severe headache.

The good news is that most tension headaches and migraines can be managed with appropriate pain relief and a few lifestyle modifications.

“People are relieved to learn that headaches aren’t something they need to worry about,” says Dr. Belt. “For people who have them frequently, we are here to help manage your symptoms and get you back to doing the things you love.”

Be Proactive About Your Health

To stay safe and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.