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Frequent Headaches? A Stanford Doctor's 3-Step Guide To Manage
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  • We are used to headaches, and they can be uncomfortable and a nuisance. But when it becomes debilitating (all you can do is lie in bed, for example), it makes us think of migraine.

    “Migraine is recurrent, often life-long, and characterized by recurring attacks,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Therefore, it is vital to have it immediately checked by a health professional and make an accurate diagnosis to prevent it from worsening.

    “We know that pain is our body’s early warning system. But when the system is too sensitive, it can trigger migraine,” says Dr. Robert Cowan, a migraine researcher and the director of Stanford’s Headache and Facial Pain Clinic. “That sensitivity is inherited. It is in our genes.”

    According to Dr. Cowan’s Stanford University’s Medical Center video, “Migraine 101: A 3-Step Guide to Managing Headaches,” there are two environmental factors to set off the pain response in people with migraine.

    Soaking up too much sun can be an external environmental factor. Internal environmental factors may include falling estrogen levels or changing sleeping patterns, particularly in those genetically wired for migraine.

    How to manage headaches

    “We can’t get a do-over on picking our parents and certain aspects of the environment are beyond our control,” Dr. Cowan, who suffers from migraines. “So we need to focus on those aspects of our environment that can be controlled.”

    He listed three main tips on how to avoid headaches:

    Step #1 Observe and record

    “There are more than 150 headache types and they are not all treated the same,” Dr. Cowan says. “Not everyone gets headaches from chocolates and generic lists of things to avoid rarely work out. We need to observe our own patterns of behavior to identify things that contribute to our headaches.”


    Dr. Cowan suggests keeping a headache diary. It can be from smartphone applications, computer programs, or even paper diaries.

    “By recovering your headache frequency and severity, time of onset and similar information for a month or three, you may begin to see patterns that weren’t obvious before.”

    Keeping a headache diary does you no good if you do not go over it with your doctor. He can come up with a diagnosis and a treatement plan.

    Step #2 Plan a treatment strategy

    A good treatment strategy have three parts per Dr. Cowan. 

    Rescue or acute treatment

    “Usually, a cornerstone of a rescue or acute treatment is medication, but it is also important to have a strategy,” Dr. Cowan advises.

    Without taking this process seriously, there is a possibility that you will constantly cycle back to other stressors, making the medication less effective and your recovery slower.


    “Prevention is made up of strategies you put in place to decrease your sensitivity to the environmental stressors that can trigger your headache.”

    Dr. Cowan stresses it’s not a “one-size-fits-all” plan, and treatment is not purely medication. Instead, it can be behavioral strategies such as biofeedback, physical therapy, stress management, integrative medicine, among others. Some swear by essential oils

    Lifestyle modifications

    If environmental change can trigger a headache, then your body needs to make lifesyle changes that will protect you from migraine.

    Step 3 Do healthy the correct way

    The goal of lifestyle modification is to maintain consistent sleep, eating, and exercise patterns. These three influence the changes in your body’s hormonal cycles.

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    By maintaining consistency, your body can better anticipate and adapt without spiraling out of control and into migraine.

    Dr. Cowan goes on to say, “We can do some things knowing full well we will probably get a headache and that’s okay! We have free will and sometimes that day at the beach or going to a live concert is worth the price.” 

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