Headaches are a very common pathology, with approximately 50% of the world’s population being affected at any given time. The majority of headaches are benign, with no underlying pathology. Of these primary benign headaches the most common are tension headaches, migraines and cluster headaches.
Tension headaches account for about 40% of primary benign headaches in adults. They typically last around 30 minutes – 1 week and are generally bilateral with a pressing or tightening quality to them. They are not aggravated by physical activity, are not pulsating in character and generally are not accompanied by nausea or vomiting. They are often a result of stress, too much screen time or tight muscles in the neck and shoulders.
Migraines occur in approximately 10% of adults, with the majority being women. They are more common in adolescence and typically occur between the age of 10 and 30 years old. Nausea is the most important accompanying symptom to rule in a migraine headache. The quality of a migraine is typically pulsating, unilateral, disabling and lasting between 4 and 72 hours, occuring 1-2 times per month. There may be photophobia (sensitivity to light) or phonophobia (sensitivity to sound). Generally, migraines are worse with exercise and may be triggered by food such as chocolate or cheese. Some migraine sufferers may experience auras that are typically visual disturbances such as stars or flashes that occur before the onset of the headache and last around 20 minutes to one hour.
Cluster headaches are less common and are quite debilitating. They are characterized by severe unilateral pain, often around the eye or temporal area. They last around 15 minutes to 3 hours and are generally associated with eye or nasal symptoms such as rhinorrhea (runny nose) or miosis (pupil constriction). These headaches are quite persistent as they can occur every second day to as often as eight per day. There tends to be a correlation with smoking and beer is a common trigger. They can cause awakening from sleep and are often associated with thunderclap headaches or the “worst headache ever experienced”. These are also symptoms of more severe pathologies and therefore require medical attention.
Another common cause of headaches is caffeine withdrawal, occurring in about 50% of those who drink high dosages of caffeine per day. To avoid withdrawal headaches, cut down on coffee consumption gradually versus quitting cold turkey. A good way to do this is to cut down by one cup per day, or make your cup half decaf. Tea generally has less caffeine so it can also be used to help wean down caffeine dosage. Herbal teas are caffeine-free and are a great way to get the comfort of a warm mug if trying to limit caffeine consumption.
Additionally, dehydration can contribute to headaches so being conscious of your water consumption may help ease the frequency and intensity of headaches. Plus, you’ll reap all the other benefits of adequate hydration such as improved digestion, skin health and flushing of toxins from the body!
What can you do?
- Try to adopt a more anti-inflammatory diet. Inflammation makes headaches more likely to occur. This includes a diet high in fruits and vegetables, high in fiber, low in processed foods and sugars, low in trans fat and high in healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, olive oil.
- Monitor food and beverage intake to figure out any associated triggers such as chocolate, cheese, coffee or alcohol. Limit these foods if they are a trigger for you.
- Roll peppermint oil on the back of the neck and shoulders, as well as on the temples and hairline to alleviate muscle tension and for symptomatic relief. Unless you are using a premixed remedy, make sure to mix it with a carrier oil (jojoba, coconut, olive oil etc.) before applying it as essential oils can be skin irritants.
- Talk to your naturopath or healthcare professional about magnesium supplementation. A magnesium deficiency can exacerbate tight muscles. Alternatively, taking epsom salt baths or soaking a towel in epsom salts and placing over the tight area may help as these salts are high in magnesium.
- Limit screen time if possible – especially before bed as the blue light that is emitted can negatively affect melatonin levels which is the hormone responsible for inducing sleep.
- Get a good night’s sleep. Go to bed at the same hour every night, aiming for 7-9 hours. If sleep is an issue for you talk to your healthcare practitioner for further evaluation and therapies for a more restful sleep.
- Stay hydrated! If adequate water consumption is a challenge for you try adding lemon, cucumber or mint for flavor and additional benefits! Herbal teas are also a great way to increase water consumption without the caffeine.
- Try to de-stress! This is often a correlation with headaches. Yoga, meditation and calming essential oils such as lavender and chamomile can help soothe the body and mind. Try booking an appointment for acupuncture or cupping which can help alleviate muscle tension and stress. Also, take the time to do the things you love!
- Book an appointment with a chiropractor or massage therapist to ensure proper alignment of the spine and relieve tight muscles that may be contributing factors to headaches.
This information is intended for educational purposes only. If you suffer from headaches, please book an appointment with your healthcare practitioner for further evaluation.
1. Henderson, Mark C., Lawrence M. Tierney, and Gerald W. Smetana. The Patient History: An Evidence-based Approach to Differential Diagnosis. Stamford, CT: Appleton & Lange, 2013. Print.