Chronic headaches can be one of the most debilitating medical problems a person has to deal with. Though rarely life-threatening, recurring headaches interfere with your job, your family, hobbies, sleep, and health.
Chronic headaches come in many forms. Most commonly, sufferers develop tension headaches resulting from tight neck muscles, or migraine headaches caused by the expansion of blood vessels in the head. In reality, though, there are many types of headaches, and someone who suffers from one kind often will experience others as well. The approaches discussed in this article are designed for both Chronic and migraine headaches, as well as associated neuralgias, cluster headaches, and other less common kinds of head pain.
One of the results of the stressful lives we lead is that we often forget how to breathe. If you’ve never thought about it, that probably sounds like a strange statement. But as you’re reading this article, examine whether you’re taking slow, deep breaths fully into your abdomen, or breathing shallowly or even holding your breath. Those kinds of interrupted breathing patterns develop over time and you may not even notice you’ve created this habit. Deep breathing can prevent headaches as well as help soothe the pain once you’ve developed a headache. Sit straight in a chair or lie on your back, whichever feels most comfortable. Place either hand on your stomach with your palm touching your midsection. Take a deep breath through your nose; the movement should cause your stomach to expand. Hold it for a moment, then breathe out fully through your mouth. Practice this cycle, in and out, to help you relax. You should immediately feel a reduction in tension, as well as in the high emotional levels that often accompany head pain.
Cool or Warm Baths
Submerging your body in water reduces pressure on your muscles, joints, and even internal organs. The buoyancy provided by a bath or a dip in the pool can help you relax during a headache. The trick is determining the best temperature for your body. Because a migraine headache is caused by your blood vessels expanding, a cool bath, especially with your scalp in the water, can help restrict blood flow and ease the headache. On the other hand, a warm bath can reduce tension in your neck and shoulders, and can be a relaxing way to get rid of a tension headache. (If you aren’t sure what kind of headaches you suffer, avoid a warm bath until you and your doctor have determined that you don’t have true migraines.)
If a bath isn’t convenient, a cool compress against your forehead or neck works similarly for migraines. And a heating pad can help the muscles of your head and neck relax when you have a tension headache.
Massage and Ointment
A professional massage can loosen up the tension that both creates and is caused by headaches. But even a sure-handed shoulder rub from a friend or spouse will help you get through the pain of a headache. You can even perform massage yourself. Key areas to focus on are:
- Your temples, on either side of your forehead
- An area behind your temples and usually slightly in front of your ears, where the occipital nerve is close to the scalp
- At the top of the eye sockets
- At the area where your head and neck meet, another place your occipital nerve can be reached, as well as the location of muscles that interact with your head and neck movements
- Your shoulders – specifically, the trapezius muscle that begins at the back of your neck and extends outward toward your shoulder and down your back to the middle of your spine
Certain ointments can help increase the efficacy of massage. Two common ones to use are any muscle cream that contains capsaicin, the ingredient that makes peppers taste hot, and the ointment known as Tiger Balm, in the “white” or “cold” variety. This type of Tiger Balm contains menthol, camphor, and other oils that relax the muscles while providing aromatherapy, too.
Dehydration is a common cause of headaches, and if you don’t consume enough water each day, you may not even realize it. Our bodies often confuse thirst with hunger, and you may be drawn to overeat rather than to drink the water your body is really craving. Eating a high-sodium diet compounds the problem. Try drinking one ounce of water for each pound you weigh, daily, to prevent headaches from occurring. This means if you weigh 180 pounds, you should drink 180 fluid ounces of water each day. (Increase your intake if you spend time in the hot outdoors or if you exercise.) Drinking water can also help relieve a headache that you’re already experiencing, especially if dehydration was the cause. Many migraine sufferers, especially, have simultaneous nausea with their headaches, so don’t drink too fast if you think you may have to vomit; vomiting only increases your dehydration. Also, try lukewarm water to prevent a shock to your system from consuming extremely cold or hot water.
Examine Your Diet
Diet, the final piece of the puzzle, won’t help much for a headache that you’re already experiencing. But certain foods are common causes of chronic headaches, and figuring out which ones are your personal triggers can help you avoid future headaches. When treating someone for chronic headaches, practitioners recommend keeping a food journal. The problem is that a trigger can happen even 2-3 days prior to the onset of a headache, so it’s sometimes hard to find patterns that trigger your pain.
I recommend going back to the basics for a week to see how it affects your pain levels and frequency. Oatmeal, water, chicken, plain steamed vegetables (except onions), and rice are typically safe. Then slowly add back in your normal foods, one at a time every 2-3 days, and note any new headaches that develop. The pain may be tied to one of the foods you just reintroduced into your diet plan.
Common dietary triggers are:
- sodium nitrate, a preservative in hot dogs, lunch meat, bacon, and sausage
- MSG, or monosodium glutmate, common in flavored chips, soups and broths, and many other foods
- foods that change your estrogen levels, such as caffeine (sodas and coffee), chocolate, and onions
- aged cheese, such as blue cheese, parmesan, asiago, Swiss, feta, etc.
- pickles and olives
- wine and beer
- artificial sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose
When to See Your Doctor
If you’ve experienced more than one severe headache without knowing the cause, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about the problem. Most people who suffer headaches don’t have a serious illness that causes them, but headaches can stem from certain medical problems that you’ll want to rule out. Your doctor will be interested in how the pain feels, when and how often it occurs, and how long the headaches last. They may order an x-ray or CT scan to rule out a neck injury or head tumor. And of course, there are prescription drugs that prevent or treat headaches and which may work better for some people than natural remedies.
You and your doctor should be able to work out a plan to help reduce or eliminate your headache pain, so that you can get on with your life.