Kathy Gruver, PhD
Headaches have been plaguing humans, probably since humans have been in existence. And though they do offer a traditional excuse for avoiding intimacy, headaches can also interfere with daily functioning and take the joy out of life. According to the National Headache Association:
• 45% of respondents missed at least 5 family or social events in the last year because of a headache
• Nearly 30% have missed up to 5 days of work each month due to headache
• 25% of respondents reported that their coworkers resent the time they spend away from work due to a headache
• 20% of respondents reported their family and friends tend to resent them for missing events because of headaches
And an average o $1500/year is being spent on prescriptions not to mention over the counter drugs like Advil and Excedrin Migraine.
Here are some causes and solutions for that pain in the head that you might not have thought of.
The first thing I’d ask you to explore are side effects from prescription drugs. Often headaches can be caused by something you are already taking. Even if you’ve been on the drug for a while, side effects can still develop. I was prone to horrible migraines and was tested for every disease under the sun. I was also put on numerous migraine medications including Imitrex. Years later when I decided to be drug-free I got off the birth control pill. Miraculously my headaches completely disappeared. Doing some research, I found that headaches are a common side effect of oral contraceptives. I could have saved myself years of pain and extra medication had someone just read the Prescription Drug Reference Guide. Also, a lot of headache medications can cause what are called “rebound headaches” which means over time you must take more and more of the drug to get it to work. Often if you stop taking it your headaches subside.
Another common culprit for headaches is food sensitivities. With so many additives, flavorings, artificial colors and sweeteners and MSG being added to our food, it’s no wonder that people are having more headaches. You can take a food sensitivity test like the LEAP test (which differs from traditional allergy testing that your MD would do) to see if you are vulnerable to certain foods. You could also try keeping a food diary. Chart your daily intake of all foods and drinks and when your headaches occur. Over time you might be able to see a pattern develop that will lead you to eliminate certain foods. MSG is a repeat offender for headaches and migraines as is artificial sweeteners like aspartame and Sucralose. MSG doesn’t have to be labeled in most food and the website http://www.msgmyth.com/hidden_names.html will help you identify its aliases.
In the food diary, it would also be helpful to note stress level, menstrual phase and level of physical activity. Stress is definitely a contributing factor to headaches. We tend to boost our shoulders up to our ears during stressful times and that muscle tension can lead to headaches. Clenching our jaws also add to the problem. Many people not only grind during the night but also clamp their jaws shut during their workday. My observation is, if you wake up with a headache, nine times out of 10, you were clenching and should work on relaxing your jaw. A mouth guard can help but often people continue to grind and chew right though them. Also avoid gum chewing and eating hard foods like jerky if you are prone to jaw tension.
Hormonal changes can also lead to headaches. Many women experience headaches as part of their premenstrual symptoms or suddenly get them as they experience menopause. Making sure you get plenty of rest during this time is key, as is reducing your stress and eating right. See if your headaches at this time of month might be telling you to slow down and look inward to see if you are taking good enough care of yourself. Usually our bodies are trying to communicate something to us through pain.
Sometimes our bodies get out of alignment, the same way our cars do. If the cervical (neck) vertebrae go “out” we might experience headaches. A chiropractor can offer help in this arena as can an osteopath. Multiple visits might be necessary but relief can usually be found.
We know that drinking too much alcohol can cause that next day symptom of a headache. Even if you think you didn’t drink enough to be hung over, think about the circumstances surrounding your consumption. Did you have enough food in your body? Were you staying hydrated? What was the alcohol content of what you were drinking? Are you developing an allergy to sulfites in wine? Did you set out with the intention of getting sloshed? Sometimes even though you’re used to two glasses, the circumstances might be such that those two glasses cause a headache the next day. Don’t rule out that you overindulged.
Make sure you’re eating right and also that you are moving your bowels. Constipation is an issue that can definitely contribute to headaches. We should be having 1-3 bowel movements every day. If you are having fewer or needing to strain, look into a cleanse, colonic or change in diet. Also if you are constipated AND get headaches, you might be deficient in magnesium. This important nutrient relaxes smooth muscle and may alleviate both problems.
What if your headaches continue or get more frequent or severe? Seek out medical help as the headaches could be caused by something serious like meningitis, vision problems, MS, a tumor or cancer. Usually headaches are innocent, but in some cases they might be a symptom of a more serious problem. Sudden, severe headache or sudden headache associated with a stiff neck; headaches associated with fever, convulsions, or accompanied by confusion or loss of consciousness; headaches following a blow to the head, or associated with pain in the eye or ear; persistent headache in a person who was previously headache free; and recurring headache in children indicate that you should seek medical attention.
Now, what can we do if we find ourselves plagued by the occasion pain in the noggin?
Since stress is a common cause, do what you can to decrease it in your life. Meditation, taking time for you and spending time with friends can lead to less stress and a lessening of headaches. Muscle tension goes hand in hand with stress so try getting a massage to relax those tight neck, shoulder and jaw muscles. Many massage therapists like myself have helped their clients eliminate headaches. And as mentioned above, think about seeing a chiropractor to help with any alignment issues you might be experiencing.
And an acupuncturist can do some needling to relieve stress and balance the subtle energy in the body that might be causing the headaches. Often these types of practitioners can also recommend stretches to help relieve the muscle tension that may be contributing to your headache. And especially if you work at a desk all day, make sure you take time out to stretch and never hold the phone against your ear while you do other things, this is a sure fire way to throw your neck out of place and create extra muscle tension.
Your Chinese medicine practitioner might also recommend some Chinese herbs to help deal with your symptoms. American herbs can help too. Taking feverfew on a daily basis has been shown to decrease headaches. Some people also recommend sniffing fresh lavender at the first hint of a headache. A homeopathic practitioner also might have some options for you or a combination remedy can be purchased in most health food stores that contain the most common headache remedies. If you are going to consult with a homeopath, make sure to keep track of the specifics of your headache, what seems to aggravate it, time of day, what relieves it, do you crave certain foods or situations, and any other details you can note. These will help the practitioner hit on the right remedy for your specific headache.
Whether you decide to keep a food diary or not there are common triggers that could be avoided as an experiment. Many people are sensitive to aged cheeses, chocolate, beer and red wine. Try getting these out of your diet for at least 6 weeks to see if there is improvement in your symptoms. Also, certain food colorings and additives should be eliminated like artificial sweeteners and MSG. These are huge instigators when it comes to headaches and even if you aren’t prone to them, I recommend you take them out of your diet all together.
Look at your prescriptions and check for common side effects to see if they might be to blame. www.webmd.com is a great resource as is the PDR (Prescription Drug Reference). Even headache medications can cause rebound headaches and you might decide to talk to your doctor about trying a different prescription or getting off them all together. Of course, never stop taking a prescription without discussing this with your doctor first as many prescriptions need to be gotten off of slowly.
I hope this helps you deal with your headaches and gives you some ideas and solutions.
Kathy Gruver, PhD is the author of The Alternative Medicine Cabinet and Body/Mind Therapies for the Bodyworker. She can be reached at www.thealternativemedicinecabinet.com