Heading Off Headaches
Natural Strategies Help Halt the Pain
by Carrie Jackson
Headaches are one of the most common pain conditions in the world. According to the Cleveland Clinic, up to 75 percent of adults have had a headache in the past year. While symptoms vary in scope and intensity, understanding the underlying cause of a headache can lead to better treatment outcomes. Most headaches can be treated holistically, and lifestyle modifications can be key to lasting relief.
There are more than 150 types of headaches, with the most common being tension, migraine and cluster. Migraine attacks, which according to the Migraine Research Foundation affect 12 percent of people in the U.S., are about three times more common in women than in men. Classic symptoms, which can be mild to severe, include throbbing or pounding pain located in the sinuses, forehead, back of the head or one of the temples.
Migraine can be triggered by changes in the weather, fatigue, stress, anxiety, insufficient sleep, dehydration and hormonal changes, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Headaches can also be provoked by certain allergens, such as cigarette smoke, exposure to harsh chemicals in cleaning or beauty products, mold, dust, caffeine, alcohol and fermented foods.
According to Alexander Feoktistov, M.D., Ph.D., founder of the Synergy Integrative Headache Center, in Chicago, many headaches are caused by some form of stress. “Both physical and emotional stress can manifest with headaches. These are often triggered by changes in a routine or schedule, which throws the body’s regulatory rhythm off. Skipping meals, varying your sleep patterns and exercising inconsistently can all confuse the body and lead to a headache, varying in intensity from dull and distracting to severe and debilitating,” he explains.
The Mind-Body Connection
While not completely understood, mental stress and anxiety can also be a trigger. “The mind-body connection is fierce,” says Christina P. Kantzavelos, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in chronic illness and pain at Begin Within Today, in San Diego. “It’s important to keep in mind that pain literally originates in the brain. I use a Constructed Awareness approach with clients and bring curiosity to the pain they are experiencing, including headaches. What thoughts and emotions are coming up when they focus on the pain?” she says. “Physical symptoms are often the manifestation or tangible evidence of what is going on in your unconscious mind. Our bodies become stronger or weaker, depending on our emotional state. Fear, self-criticism and invalidating the self can be the root of a headache.”
Try Acupuncture or Acupressure
Evidence suggests that acupuncture is effective in relieving the pain of headaches by changing the flow of energy, increasing blood circulation, releasing endorphins and relaxing muscles. Acupressure and other techniques can be done anywhere, says chiropractor and acupuncturist Michele Renee, director of integrative care at Northwestern Health Sciences University, in Bloomington, Minnesota. “The best acupressure point for headaches is the soft skin in-between the thumb and pointer finger. Massage it for 20 to 30 seconds at a time to relieve pain or hold it for 10 seconds,” she says. “Migraines are caused by vascular dilation in the head, so I recommend putting your hands and feet in hot water or taking a bath to stimulate blood flow away from the head to the rest of the body.”
Don’t Forget Exercise
Renee also suggests maintaining a regular exercise routine to ward off headaches. “The less active someone is, the tighter their muscles are and the more likely they will experience headaches. Make sure to get out for a walk every day, or try running to keep the body and mind moving. Yoga is another great activity as a mindfulness practice that decreases stress and also keeps the body moving to eliminate tension.”
Nutritional supplements can also be helpful, Renee says. “Increasing nutrients such as magnesium, coenzyme Q-10 and riboflavin can help minimize pain. Before stocking up on supplements, be sure to consult with a holistic practitioner to make sure you are making the wisest and safest selections for you. Many nutrients can be found in common foods like dark chocolate, leafy greens, seeds and nuts, meat, fatty fish and legumes.”
Feoktistov recommends that patients experiencing headaches start with lifestyle modifications and over-the-counter meds such as ibuprofen. “Practice good sleep hygiene, stay hydrated by drinking water and minimizing caffeine, and introduce meditation as a way of focusing on what’s physically and emotionally going on in your body,” he says. “If headaches disrupt your daily routine, are severe or frequent and/or poorly controlled with over-the-counter medications, it’s time to seek help from a headache specialist or other medical professional who can work with you on a path to healing.”
Carrie Jackson is a Chicago-based writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine. Connect at CarrieJacksonWrites.com.