One of my patients, who I’ll call Mary, came in the other day and told me she had tried all the usual treatments for headaches. But for Mary, and many other people, the usual treatments consist of aspirin, ibuprofen or other analgesics.
Mary was surprised when I told her that these painkillers might actually be causing her headaches because analgesics cause what we call "rebound headaches.” I told Mary we had to get to the root of what was causing her headaches and that the cause may be more than one factor.
And when you are assessing headaches you must first see a medical doctor and rule out organic causes.
If there are no organic reasons for the headaches, there is something you can do to relieve the pain. I am going to limit this column to tension headaches, which are so common and so distressing.
We usually get tension headaches because there is not enough blood flowing to the brain. One way to eliminate this tension is by shifting our attitudes in stressful situations, doing relaxation exercises, and deep abdominal breathing. Yoga stretches are also wonderful for this.
The normal tension headache starts as a dull, steady pain at the back of the neck and then moves forward and spreads to the entire head. As with all symptoms in the body, a headache is indicative of something else. Headaches are not normal. There may be a structural problem and it may be necessary to see a registered massage therapist or chiropractor for an adjustment.
Caffeine is one of the biggest culprits. It constricts the blood vessels into the brain. When this happens the body tries to send more oxygen and glucose to the brain so it releases substances that open up the blood vessels and too much blood in the head will cause a headache.
If you choose to stop drinking coffee, cut down very slowly. Half a cup a day is the recommended amount by which to reduce your intake. If you cut down more quickly, you’ll trigger a headache.
Another headache trigger is alcohol, especially red wine, which releases substances in the body that open those arteries to the brain. For some people certain foods like nuts and dairy are a trigger. But stress is by far the biggest culprit.
Look at your lifestyle. How can you reduce stress by changing your attitude to what life brings you?
There are some supplements that help. Magnesium relaxes the blood vessels and calcium relaxes muscles. Make sure that your headaches are not caused by dehydration, so drink lots of water – eight glasses a day.
So enough liquids, vitamins, less coffee and alcohol, stress reduction, and mechanical alignment are all things that hit directly at the cause of tension headaches. Most importantly, these things all attack the cause, not just the symptom.
Dr. Paulette Roscoe is a naturopathic physician who practices in Nanaimo. She welcomes your calls at 754-1733.