There’s No Room in a Nurse’s Day for Recurring Headaches

Care for yourself by addressing chronic pain


If you’re a nurse who suffers from frequent headaches, you may shrug them off as a side effect of job stress. But some types of headaches can be prevented with lifestyle changes, and some can be treated without medication. First, however, it’s important to know what type of headache you are experiencing, its causes and whether there’s a reason for concern.

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“Occupational stress is a common trigger for both tension headaches and migraine headaches,” says Katherine Najdovski, MSN, APRN-CNP, of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Neurological Restoration’s Section of Headache and Facial Pain. “A stress or tension headache is usually aching in nature and can be felt on both sides of the head. A migraine feels more like a throbbing or pounding.”

Tension Headaches

Tension or stress headaches are the most common type. The pain tends to be mild to moderate and consistent without throbbing. It usually responds to over-the-counter ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

“A lot of my patients describe it as feeling like they have a tight swimming cap or band around their head,” Najdovski says.


Migraines are the second most common type of headache. They tend to be moderately to severely painful, can cause nausea and vomiting, and sometimes are accompanied by aura – temporary sensory changes such as seeing flashing lights or developing blind spots. The pounding or throbbing pain can last a few hours to a few days, and light, noise and odors can worsen the pain. People may also find that the pain gets worse during routine activities such as bending over or walking up stairs.

When Should You Be Concerned About Headaches?

Seek medical care right away if you have a sudden, severe headache or one that is associated with the following symptoms:

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  • Weakness
  • Sudden loss of balance or falling
  • Dizziness
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Paralysis
  • Speech difficulties
  • Mental confusion
  • Seizures
  • Personality changes or inappropriate behavior
  • Vision changes (blurry vision, double vision or blind spots)

“Other red flags are if the headache seems positional in nature – it gets worse when you lie down or when you stand, or if it is associated with fever or rigidity in the neck,” Najdovski says.

Rebound Headaches

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen both work for headaches. However, Najdovski warns that overuse of the pain relievers can cause “rebound headaches,” which are daily or near daily headaches that  may be a challenge to treat until the offending analgesic is stopped or use is reduced.

People most at risk for rebound headaches are those with primary headache disorders, such as migrainecluster or tension, whose headaches are not managed well with medication.

When to Seek Help

There are prescription medications available to treat and even prevent headaches, especially migraines. If you suffer from four or more debilitating headaches a month, or two that are disabling (severe enough to make you miss work, etc.), talk to your healthcare provider. 

Alternative Treatments for Headaches

There are non-pharmacological ways to treat headaches as well, Najdovski says.

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  • Put ice or heat on the head where the pain is, or on the neck or shoulder muscles.
  • Breathe in the scents of peppermint, eucalyptus or lavender through essential oils.
  • Practice gentle stretching, deep breathing exercises or get a massage, if possible.
  • Rest in a dark, quiet room.

Tips for Preventing Headaches

To avoid or limit headaches, Najdovski says lifestyle factors can play an important role. Eating regular meals, staying hydrated, practicing good sleep hygiene and exercising regularly all can help.

Of course, controlling and reducing stress can help as well. And, if you have a history of anxiety or depression, work with your healthcare provider to get those factors under control.  

Consuming less than 200 milligrams of caffeine a day may help protect against headaches for some people.