Headaches are one of the most common medical complaints heard by doctors today. Approximately 45 million people suffer recurring headaches every year. And when you can’t think, you can’t work so headaches end up costing employers an estimated $50 billion per year. Your brain itself cannot sense pain so a headache has nothing to do with your brain (unless you’ve overworked your brain for hours on end). A headache is pain sensed in the nerves and muscles of the neck as well as the meninges (the membranous coverings of the brain and spinal cord). The pain itself is picked up by nerve endings located in your head. Headaches range from being a mild inconvenience to a full-blown debilitating condition. Mild headaches are generally caused by stress, tension, anxiety or eye strain. Tension headaches result from muscular strain and emotional upset. Migraines develop when blood flow is reduced to the cerebral cortex; the layer of the brain often referred to as gray matter because the nerves in this area lack the insulation that makes most other parts of the brain appear to be white. Headaches known as cluster headaches occur frequently over a period of weeks or months, generally on one side of the head and centered around the eye. These are just a few of the precursors to headaches.
Headaches can be caused by a whole host of variations on a theme. Doctors have classified the causes of headaches as either primary or secondary. These two classifications are directly related to whether or not you have underlying medical conditions. Either your headache is related to an underlying condition (secondary), or it’s not (primary).
Types of primary headaches include migraines, tension headaches and cluster headaches.
Secondary headaches stem from other problems in your body such as infections, fever, head injuries, hypoglycemia and/or dental conditions, to name just a few.
TYPES OF HEADACHES
Eye Strain, Stress/Tension Headaches
The medical term for eye strain is asthenopia, brought on by concentrated use of the eyes, especially in dimly lit environments, for visual tasks such as using a computer, reading fine print or manual work with very small objects (watch repair, jewelry making, embroidery). If you’re working intensely, you’re probably not aware that you’re clenching the muscles of the eyelids (squinting) and the muscles in your face, temples and jaw. You also tend to blink less when you’re intensely involved or concentrating, drying out the eyes. All this can easily lead to a headache.
As the name suggests, stress/tension headaches are brought on by being under constant pressure (real or perceived), and the nervousness and strain that’s associated with it. Roughly 30-80% of adults suffer from episodic (occasional) tension headaches, with as many as 3% suffering from them daily (chronic). The more frequent the headaches, the more severe they tend to be. Tension headaches can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several days. The pain from a tension headache is generally described as constant, dull, achy feeling on both sides of the head; like someone’s placed a tight band around one’s head. There can also be pain in the jaw (probably from unknowingly clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth for extended periods of time) and in the neck muscles (from holding your neck and/or body in one position for too long). Tension headaches can be caused by inadequate rest, poor posture, emotional/mental stress, fatigue, hunger/dehydration, overexertion or major life events such as having a new child, returning to work/school, starting a new job, retirement, deadlines, over-committing yourself, and basically anything that causes excess stress in your life.
Tension headaches occur more commonly in women than in men.
Cluster headaches are headaches that come in groups (clusters) lasting weeks or months, separated by pain-free periods of months or years. During the period in which the cluster headaches occur, pain typically occurs once or twice daily, lasting from 30 to 90 minutes at the same time every day. Some patients may experience pain more than twice daily and can be woken from a sound sleep by the pain. During a susceptible period, cigarette smoking, alcohol and certain foods can also heighten the likelihood of experiencing a cluster headache.
The pain typically occurs around or behind one eye, feeling like a hot poker in the eye. The eye can actually become red, inflamed and watery. The nose, on the affected side, may become congested or runny.
During a cluster headache, behavioral changes become apparent; the individual is restless, may pace the floor, and is more likely to be driven to desperate measures.
Cluster headaches occur more frequently in men than in women.
MigrainesThe precise cause of a migraine headache is not fully understood. The generally accepted explanation is that migraines can be caused by reduced blood flow to various areas of the cerebral cortex; the thin layer of gray matter on the surface of the brain which is the center for higher mental functions, perception, behavioral responses and other functions. Many researchers believe that a certain vulnerability in the nervous system is present in migraine sufferers that is not present in non-migraine sufferers.
The reduced blood flow happens in response to an external trigger; a food, an activity, an environmental factor. This trigger creates a spasm in the nerve-rich arteries at the base of the brain, reducing blood to the brain and triggering the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Low amounts of serotonin cause the blood vessels to be unusually large, causing the throbbing pain felt during a migraine episode. The area around the expanded blood vessels becomes inflamed and irritates the nerve endings. The dramatic changes in serotonin levels and reduced blood flow may be the cause of not only the head pain, but also the nausea and distorted vision or speech that often accompanies a migraine.
Migraines also activate the sympathetic nervous system; one part of your nervous system responsible for controlling primitive responses to stress and pain such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Sadly, the sympathetic response delays the emptying of the stomach contents so if you’ve taken a pain killer by mouth, it’s likely to take longer to have any effect, if at all. The sympathetic response also decreases the circulation of blood, leading to cold hands and feet and contributes to the sensitivity of light and sound.
Migraines can develop from a minor headache. In general, people describe migraine pain as intense, throbbing and pounding, involving one side of the head (the temple area). Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, cold hands and feet, and a sensitivity to light and sound. Even the sound of one’s own voice can sound like screaming and can aggravate the episode.
As with most things, variables are involved. Sometimes migraine sufferers report the pain can be located in the forehead, around the eye or at the back of the head and involve both sides of the head.
Warning signs that a migraine may be imminent include sleepiness, irritability, fatigue, depression/euphoria, yawning and cravings for sweet/salty foods.
The migraine aura is another warning sign. Usually, the aura precedes the headache but can occur simultaneously with the migraine. Auras include seeing flashing, brightly colored lights in a zigzag pattern starting in the middle of the visual field and progressing outward. Auras also include a “blind spot” or scotoma; a hole in the visual field.
Other Types of Secondary Headaches
Headaches which start in the back of the head and neck can be associated with a few different things.
- Cervicogenic (cervic=neck, genic=caused by) headaches are usually brought about by a problem in the upper spine and cause pain in the back of the head on one side only. This pain usually spreads up the back of the head and around the side toward the ear, carrying over the top into the forehead and eyebrow region. A previous injury to the upper spine or neck (such as whiplash) is a frequent contributing factor to these types of headaches.
Other types of headaches starting in the back of the neck and head include occipital neuralgio (severe, sharp pain spreading to the top of the head and into the eye on the same side), retropharyngeal tendinitis (severe pain, onset over 1-2 days, pain with swallowing), and “ice pick” headaches (brief, intense pain lasting a few seconds located in the neck or back of the head). An arthritis headache intensifies on movement and is caused by inflammation of the blood vessels of the head or bony changes in the neck.
Allergy headaches are a more generalized headache with accompanying nasal congestion and watery eyes.
Caffeine withdrawal can cause a throbbing headache due to the rebound dilation of the blood vessels and generally occurs after a caffeine bender.
Many types of headaches are named for the type of symptoms that brings them about:
- Sinus headaches
- Menstrual headaches (caused by a change in estrogen)
- Hypertension headaches (high blood pressure)
- Hunger headaches
- Post-traumatic headaches
- Hangover headache (alcohol causes dilation and irritation of the blood vessels of the brain and surrounding tissue)
- Temporalmandibular Joint (TMJ) headaches (chronic “clicking” or pain occurring after trauma to the joint or jaw)
Brain Freeze Headaches
Most of us, at some point, have regretted the decision to “down a freezie” or take a big mouthful of ice cream. The result; brain freeze! Here’s a short video that explains why this happens.
Prevention and Treatment
Preventing headaches may not be possible for some. But for the rest of us, attention to detail may be the key. Paying attention to how much stress is in your life, how much responsibility you can reasonably handle (and learning to delegate), and ensuring you’re getting adequate sleep and optimal nutrition could mean the difference between having to reach for the analgesics and whistling through your day, headache-free. Make sure your desk is set up so that your computer monitor is at a comfortable distance for your eyes and that your chair is doing you more good than harm. If you haven’t replaced your desk chair in a few years, it’s time to think about doing so. Change the resolution on your computer monitor, if you need to, so that the print is bigger and you don’t have to squint to see it.
To help relieve tension headaches, try these Headache Exercises, brought to you by the editors of PureHealthMD. As with any new technique, talk with your primary health care provider before attempting these techniques. And if anything begins to hurt, STOP! Pain is not gain.
- Sit with the head and arms supported for 15-30 minutes. The neck should be in good alignment with the body and the arms should be supported so that the elbows are not lowered to meet their support.
- Chin Tuck Exercise. Lie on the floor with a small, rolled-up towel under your neck. Gently tuck the chin down while keeping the teeth lightly together. Don’t let the head come off the surface (floor or bed) or the neck come off the towel. Hold the tucked position for 5-10 seconds. Repeat 10-15 times. You will feel some increased tension temporarily while doing this exercise, but relief should follow.
- Standing Arm Slide Exercise. Stand with the back, back of head and hips against the wall. Bring the arms, out to the sides, up to the wall to shoulder height. Gently slide the arms up the wall keeping the head and back against the wall. Repeat 10-15 times. If you are not able to get your arms flat on the wall or slide them up, start with just trying to get into the position. This exercise can also be done lying down on your back. A stretch will be felt wherever you are most stiff. It may be between the shoulder blades, at the neck or at the base of the skull.
- Hands and Knees Rocking Backwards Exercise. Start on your hands and knees squatting down; gently roll backward, keeping the head from tilting back (don’t allow the chin to come up). Hold the position for 10-20 seconds. Repeat 10 times.
Stress management techniques are great for relieving tension and helping you to return to a more neutral state of mind. Try any of the following:
- Breathing exercises
- Guided imagery
Don’t take plain old having fun for granted. Taking the dog for a walk or throwing the ball for him can be as pleasant for you as it is for your dog. Put on your favorite music and take a break; dance to the music if you like. Watch a comedy on TV or settle in and watch a whole movie. Read a funny book or do something you loved as a child, like coloring. Yes, you read that right, coloring. Get yourself a coloring book and a shiny new pack of crayons and have a blast. The diversion from any one of the preceding pastimes will be enough to bring you back to a less stressed disposition.
Exercise can relieve the stress than can cause a headache. But it should be something you love, not something you’re forcing yourself to do. If you love to swim, go swimming for an hour. If you love to play tennis, find a partner and set up a regular weekly date. Anything you love to do is an excellent diversion and stress reliever.
Other prevention techniques include:
- Avoiding known food triggers (additives, preservatives)
- Avoiding known environmental triggers: perfumes, cigarette smoke, bright light, cleaning fluids.
Treating a headache, once you have one, can be as simple an action as taking a time out. Lie down somewhere quiet and dark; let the phone go to voicemail and don’t answer text messages. If your headache involves the back of your neck, applying an ice pack may help relieve the pain. Don’t worry if you’re not a fan of cold, applying heat will only make it worse, and the relief you’ll feel will far outweigh any discomfort from the cold. Apply the ice pack for 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off. Don’t do this more than three times in a row.
If your headaches are severe and chronic, talk with your primary health care provider about a treatment this is most beneficial for you.
Various mineral and vitamin therapies that have been shown to be beneficial for headaches include supplementing with magnesium, calcium or fish oils. For example, preliminary research in a group of women showed that supplementing with magnesium (usually 200 mg per day) reduced the frequency of migraines in approximately 80 per cent of those treated.
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1. Why do we get headaches?
2. Barron’s Medical Guides, Dictionary of Medical Terms, Fourth Edition.
4. Michigan State University
Carol Roy is a Natural Health Practitioner who received her diploma from the Alternative Medicine College of Canada in Montreal, Quebec. With 12 years experience in her area of expertise, natural health and wellness, Carol has also trained to become a fully qualified Reiki Master, Quantum Touch Practitioner, and Reflexologist.
The suggestions by Nutter’s Bulk & Natural Foods and the contents of this article
are recommendations only and not a substitute for any medical advice or a
replacement for any prescriptions. Seek medical advice for any health concerns.
Consult your health care provider before using any recommendations herein.