Almost everyone experiences mild to severe headaches, which are among the most common disorders of the nervous system. In fact, approximately 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches. They can range from mild, annoying aches to throbbing pain that feels like the head will explode. We can all agree that the less we experience them, the better. Further, the health effects of headaches have been underestimated, under-recognized, and undertreated—and they deserve more attention.
Headaches can be caused by various factors including adverse drug reactions, low blood sugar, high blood pressure, poor food choices, changes in weather, polluted air, hormonal issues, stress, and fatigue. If you experience headaches on a regular basis, it is important to review the last 24 hours to figure out what may have caused the headache.
Perhaps one of the most common headache causes is dehydration in which the body loses water and electrolytes such as sodium, chloride, and potassium—all of which are necessary for the body to function. If you notice a decrease in urine output and the urine is dark, or if you notice swelling of your tongue, you may be suffering from dehydration. The solution is simple: Drink adequate amounts of water on a regular basis.
Many of us spend our days staring at a computer screen for long periods, which can leave anyone’s head aching due to eye strain. To avoid eye strain, take frequent breaks from your monitor. Get up at least once every 15 minutes and focus your eyes on something located at least 20 feet away. Working on a computer for long periods can also cause body strain, which can lead to headache and neck pain. Several ergonomic recommendations exist for those who spend hours at the computer, so be sure to check out these guidelines.
Many foods can also trigger headaches. Aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are two of the most common triggers. Many packaged foods contain MSG, and it’s used in some restaurants as a flavor enhancer. Next time you go out, read the labels and ask the restaurant manager whether MSG is used in the food. Tyramine is another ingredient that may cause headaches. Foods with tyramine typically include many deli meats and some cheeses— particularly blue, cheddar, Parmesan, and Swiss.
Unfortunately, the most common response to an oncoming headache is reaching for over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers, known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. These drugs include products such as aspirin or ibuprofen. These OTC drugs may be fine for occasional use. However, research suggests NSAIDs can damage the stomach lining and cause significant damage in the gut because they stop healing and reduce the protective mucus layer. So be sure to read the warnings and precautions listed for NSAIDs.
If you do not feel dehydrated but a headache does strike, consider trying peppermint oil. It’s an essential oil that can be applied lightly to the forehead and temples during a headache attack, with application repeated after 15 minutes and 30 minutes. Studies suggest migraine pain improved by at least one-half in 58 percent of people treating their migraine with topical peppermint oil compared with only 17 percent using an inactive placebo. Further, migraine pain was completely eliminated for 38 percent treating with topical peppermint oil, compared with only 12 percent using the placebo.
Another effective relief for tension headaches may be massage treatments. A massage may help relieve tension headaches by relaxing the muscles and reducing muscles spasms and trigger points. Tension in muscles can lead to referral pain in the head, neck, and eyes. Massaging the head, neck and shoulders can help break up these trigger points, and, therefore, stop the referred pain pattern. You can also try self-massage. Rub your temples, the back of your neck, head, and scalp in a circular motion and see if your headache pain subsides.
Tension headaches can also be treated with chiropractic adjustments. A report released by Duke University researchers found that “spinal manipulation resulted in almost immediate improvement for those headaches that originate in the neck, and had significantly fewer side effects and longer-lasting relief of tension-type headache than commonly prescribed medications.” Of course, each individual’s case is different and requires a thorough evaluation before a proper course of chiropractic care can be determined. However, for most tension headaches, significant improvement is accomplished through manipulation of the upper two cervical vertebrae, coupled with adjustments to the junction between the cervical and thoracic spine. This is also helpful in most cases of migraine headaches, as long as food and lifestyle triggers are avoided.
Migraine sufferers often have lower levels of magnesium than non-sufferers do, and several studies suggest magnesium may reduce the frequency of migraine attacks in those who have low levels of magnesium. In one study, participants taking magnesium saw a 41.6 percent reduction in the frequency of migraine attacks compared with 15.8 percent in those who took a placebo. If you prefer to avoid supplements, magnesium can be found in natural food sources such as pumpkin seeds, dried figs, fish (e.g., halibut or mackerel), boiled spinach, almonds, and dark chocolate.
So if you suffer from headaches, you may want to start a food journal, keep a water bottle with you at all times, and snack on healthy foods such as pumpkin seeds or almonds. You can be headache free by making simple changes to your diet and lifestyle.