Understanding Headache Pain: Causes and Treatments Vary Widely
Claude Gallant, Ph.D
Women tend to have more headaches than men due to the hormonal fluctuation that occurs during menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause
Have you ever had the feeling that someone is driving a nail into your head, tightening a steel band around it, or that there's a tiny man in there playing the drums or tap dancing? Sometimes this pain can be related to unruly, uncooperative or demanding children, husbands, coworkers, or simply the day-to-day grind of traffic.
Headaches can last for several hours, or, for some unlucky victims, several days. Here are some suggestions to help ease the pain:
There are two main types of headaches: primary and secondary.
Primary headaches come in many forms, including stress or tension headaches, cluster, organic and rebound headaches, as well as migraines. These are not associated with any disease and account for more than 90 percent of all headache complaints.
Migraines are vascular in origin and may be preceded by visual disturbances, loss of peripheral vision, and fatigue. They can be triggered by many lifestyle factors, such as alcohol (in particular, red wine consumption), poor posture, lack of sleep, stress, hunger, weather fluctuations, estrogen cycle, bright lights, strong odors and food additives.
Secondary headaches are associated with a disease that can activate your head's pain-sensitive nerves. These headaches can have a wide degree of severity and their cause can range from medication to treat other disorders to brain aneurysm, brain malformations, brain tumors, carbon monoxide poisoning, glaucoma, and ingestion of monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Several factors contribute to headaches for both men and women, including family history and age. Headaches are often caused by muscle tension, vascular problems, or both. Women tend to have more headaches than men due to the hormonal fluctuation that occurs during menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. Higher estrogen levels (when you're younger) may help ease your headaches, while lower estrogen levels (after menopause) may make them worse. Estrogen level also has a strong impact on the frequency of headaches.
Most headaches can be relieved, or at least made manageable, by the use of over-the-counter pain medications. However, their effectiveness is often reduced through repeated use. In essence, your body becomes used to them and they become less effective. These types of drugs are often prone to abuse and may be habit-forming.
Additionally, some supplements can help relieve headache pain or reduce instances, including:
This simple herb looks like a tiny daisy and, in fact, comes from the same plant family. Multiple studies on feverfew found some degree of benefit in the prevention of headaches and migraines. In a recent, well-designed clinical trial, 170 patients took a placebo pill or feverfew for 16 weeks. Those taking feverfew had significantly fewer migraines. It is usually taken daily to prevent, rather than treat, migraines. If you do take feverfew long-term, know that there have been some reports of rebound headaches upon discontinuing use. To avoid this potential effect, it's recommended that you slowly reduce the dose over time. If you're allergic to daisies, avoid taking this herb.
Also a member of the daisy family, butterbur has traditionally been used to treat spasms in the respiratory and digestive tracts. The leaves and root crowns contain a smooth muscle relaxant that inhibits some inflammatory substances called leukotrienes, but also contains liver toxins called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). It's important to choose a formula that's PA-free. Three clinical trials (including one in children and teens) have shown that, taken as a preventative, butterbur safely and effectively reduced the number of migraines after 4 weeks of use.
5-Hydroxytryptophan is produced in your body from the amino acid tryptophan. It's used to make the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone melatonin. Research indicates that 5-HTP may prevent and reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. In multiple studies, people were given 5-HTP or pharmaceutical drugs. After four and six months, 5-HTP was found to be as effective in reducing migraine severity and duration. Try taking a minimum of 600 mg each day in divided doses.
Research shows that medically-supervised treatment with intravenous magnesium helps break migraine and cluster headaches (rare, severe and primarily afflicting men), particularly in those with low levels of this essential mineral. Other trials also have shown that oral magnesium may help reduce the severity of and in some cases prevent headaches.
Magnesium deficiency is particularly common in women with menstrual migraines. Try taking a minimum of 600 mg a day, making sure you use well-absorbed and bioavailable forms, such as a combination of magnesium ascorbate and magnesium citrate. Avoid forms with poor bioavailability, such as magnesium oxide or magnesium carbonate.
The research on riboflavin (vitamin B2) is quite encouraging for this inexpensive and safe vitamin. Preliminary trials found 400mg a day for six months cut migraine headache frequency in half and significantly decreased medication use. Another study showed that three months use led to a 50 percent improvement in over half of participants. Riboflavin is water soluble, which means it's not stored in the body. You must replenish the vitamin every day to maintain optimal levels.
Other helpful treatments
Acupuncture: Several studies have found that acupuncture can help patients who suffer from tension and migraine headache.
Reducing your stress level: Stress is a fact of life. The trick it to find ways to make it manageable because in the long run it can cause serious health problems, including insomnia.
Exercise: Boosting your daily exercise will increase blood flow and help prevent headaches, decrease your stress level and help you sleep better. Yoga is a wonderful exercise that improves flexibility and balance and helps you get in touch with your body and your mind.
Healthier eating and drinking: Pay attention to what you eat and drink, and try to reduce the amount of coffee, chocolate, alcohol, processed food, and refined sugar you ingest every day. Don't smoke.
While we may not be able to eliminate headaches (and stress) from our lives, hopefully we can minimize their occurrence and stop the tap dancing in our heads!
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