Front, back, inside, outside—not all headaches are the same. Of the 45 million Americans who suffer from chronic, recurring headaches, each have symptoms and headache triggers that differ. The most common headaches are tension-type, a catchall term for diffuse, mild to moderate pain over the head. Next come splitting migraines, afflicting 13% of Americans with symptoms such as nausea, pain around the eye, aura and throbbing in the temple area. Makers of ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), among others, love headaches, because these nonsteroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are generally the first-line of defense in the multi-billion dollar headache market. However, as we all now know, NSAIDs come with significant risk when used regularly. What are better, safer options?
Mark V. Wiley, OMD, PhD, author of Outwitting Headaches, explains about headaches and how to cope with them. He says that it is not so much the particular label you put on a headache that is important, so much as taking a multipronged approach to returning your body to its natural, balanced state in which headaches are less likely to occur. After suffering from painful migraines himself for 27 years, he developed the following integrated mind/body approach to preventing headaches of all kinds.
IDENTIFY AND AVOID HEADACHE TRIGGERS
It is not normal—and is even harmful—to have headache after headache. You need to take action to break this destructive pattern, Dr. Wiley stresses, In his view, the key to ending headache pain is proactive avoidance of its causes rather than reactive treatment of symptoms. Major headache triggers include chemicals in food and beverages and even toxins in the body and air, dehydration, lack of exercise, as well as the stress you harbor and the sleep you miss. In order to reestablish what he calls cellular balance, he maintains that one must remove the toxins and stressors that tax the body, or learn to deal with them in new ways. For most people, this means a major lifestyle change.
What you can do: Start by looking at your diet. Eat more fresh and fewer processed foods. Also, try eliminating suspected food triggers one by one from your diet for two to three weeks, and monitor what happens with your headaches. Common culprits include cheeses such as Brie, feta and Gorgonzola, pickles, chocolate, dairy products (goat as well as cow), alcohol (beware the notorious "red wine headache'), processed meats (bologna, pepperoni, salami, hot dogs, etc.), onions, nuts, raisins and products that contain MSG, aspartame and tyramine.
DRINK PLENTY OF WATER
When we become dehydrated, the digestive system, lungs, liver and kidneys can no longer do their jobs as effectively, and this can lead to a headache.
What you can do: Drink plenty of water every day to help your body clear hazardous chemical residues and toxic buildup. Water cleanses the colon, flushes the liver and kidneys and empties the bowels. He recommends two quarts of bottled or filtered water daily, and cautions that caffeinated coffees and teas, carbonated sodas and sugar-filled fruit drinks and diet drinks don't count toward that total.
HOW TO BREAK STRESS PATTERNS
Stress, in its many forms, is a leading cause of headaches, Dr. Wiley observes. So, to control headaches, you must break the pattern of stress. Fortunately, there are many ways to go about doing this.
To reduce tension and tightness in the shoulders, neck and back, which can lead to a headache, see a massage therapist or do daily gentle stretches. A chiropractor can work with misalignments that can occur as a result of constantly tensed muscles...and acupuncture does wonders for keeping energy levels balanced. Dr. Viley also recommends meditation and deep breathing to quiet the mind and relax the body's nervous systems. Others benefit from tai chi, yoga, qigong or other gentle exercises that stretch the body and soothe the soul. Find whatever stress releases work for you-it could be walking, biking, ice skating or whatever. Taking a multiple B vitamin, at least twice daily, also helps fight the stress reflex. For many people a magnesium supplement may be useful as well.
Dr. Wiley recommends an exercise for progressive relaxation.
What to do: Lie down comfortably with your arms at your sides, and inhale as you tense your toes. Hold for a moment, and then exhale as you consciously relax them. Gradually and slowly continue up the rest of the body, mindfully tensing and relaxing the feet, calves, thighs, etc., as you inhale and exhale.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
In addition to stress relief, deep breathing ensures a continuous flow of fresh oxygen into the o) body. Many people breathe shallowly, which means they don't take in enough oxygen.
GET SUFFICIENT SLEEP
Everyone knows we get cranky and headachy when we don't get enough sleep. Your body uses serotonin to regulate sleep, and changes in serotonin levels can cause headaches. To prevent headaches, it's essential to establish deep and constant sleep patterns.
What you can do: Avoid caffeine six hours before bed, as well as overly stimulating activities such as intense exercise. Stop working at the computer at least an hour or more before bed. Instead, establish a regular, soothing routine, such as a warm bath and a good book before retiring. (As long as it is not a thriller type wherein the mind would be overstimulated before retiring, which can cause insomnia.)
Side sleeping is the best sleeping position if done correctly. To begin, side posture should mimic the fetal position. That is, both knees bent, and hands held close to the body. This is a normal and inherent sleeping posture. A pillow should be placed under the head and pulled to the shoulder for optimal neck support. The hands should be parallel and below the eyes. To avoid hip pain while sleeping on your side, place a pillow between your knees to create proper distance between them, thus keeping the hips in proper balance. The legs must be parallel, so the hips remain square and there is no strain on the lower back. If you were not previously a side sleeper, you can retrain your body by falling asleep in that position each night and then readjusting each time you wake up.
ENGAGE IN REGULAR EXERCISE
Exercise reduces stress, releases endorphins, improves blood flow, works through muscle tension and keeps the body firm and supple. Engaging in simple, regular activity such as brisk walks and simple stretches will go a long way toward preventing headaches, as well as improving overall health.
What you can do: Exercise at the same time every day, buddy up with a friend or group for accountability and support, and consider a trainer (if only for a few sessions) to help you establish a safe, personalized program. Even very easy, do-it-yourself stretches are beneficial for headache prevention. For example, try the chin-to-chest. To stretch and release tension in the shoulders and upper back, use your hands to gently push the back of the head forward to the chest. Repeat several times daily.
WHEN HEADACHES STRIKE AND YOU NEED RELIEF
With lifestyle changes, you can hopefully reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches. But, of course, on occasion a headache will arise and you may want immediate relief. Then what?
Mark Stengler, a naturopathic physician in La Jolla, California, suggests a number of options for immediate headache relief…
- Mother Nature's aspirin. Take 240 mg of salicin, the active component in white willow bark. This natural pain-relieving component, salicin, is the ingredient from which aspirin is derived. Do not take with NSAIDs.
- Homeopathic medicines. Options include Gelsemium sempervirens (Yellow Jessamine) for a dull, heavy pain at the back of the neck...Nux Vomica for headaches from stress...and Pulsatilla pratensis (Pasque Flower) for headaches around the menstrual cycle. For an acute headache, average dosage consists of a 30C potency, four times daily.
- A cup of tea. Take a timeout with a soothing and relaxing cup of peppermint, chamomile or passion flower tea. .Herbal rub. Gently massage peppermint or menthol cream into the temple area.
- A compress. Lie down in a darkened room and apply a compress to the painful area. Depending on the headache, some people prefer cold compresses, others warm.
- Hydrotherapy. Wrap a few ice cubes in a thin towel and apply to the back of the neck and upper back. At the same time, immerse your feet in a bucket of warm water for 10 minutes.
WHEN A HEADACHE MAY SPELL TROUBLE
While Dr. Wiley's strategy is effective for most headaches, there are times when headache pain requires immediate medical attention. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), you should seek prompt medical care if you experience any of the following...
- An abrupt, severe headache, or a sudden headache associated with a stiff neck.
- A headache associated with fever or convulsions, or accompanied by confusion or loss of consciousness.
- A Headache following a blow to the head, or associated with pain in the eye ot eat.
- Persistent headache in a person who was previously headache-free.
- Recurring headaches in children.
YOU'RE IN CHARGE
At the end of the day, no physician and no drug alone can prevent headaches from occurring, Dr. Wiley asserts. You're in charge of your health and quality of life, and have the tools at hand to be headache-free. Using his program, Dr. Riley believes that you will begin to see positive results within three weeks.