What would cause prehistoric man to chisel a hole in his skull? If you have ever suffered from a migraine or severe headache you may know the answer. It was thought that the holes would let out the pain creating demons from inside the head. Luckily, we do not have to resort to such means these days, although the cause of headaches is still very much a mystery. Headaches are one of the most frequent afflictions to hinder mankind’s well-being indicating something is not right. There are a wide variety of causes that can produce a headache, so finding the cause may be difficult.
There are several commonly recognized types of headaches which include: tension, migraine, cluster, rebound and sinus, although some people have more classifications. Many of these types of headaches share some of the same provocations and solutions.
As well as being the most common excuse for evading unwanted social commitments, tension headaches account for about 75% of all headaches. Most adults have had tension-type headaches at some point, which are typically a steady ache rather than a throbbing one and may affect both sides of the head. Tension-type headaches can be divided into episodic and chronic. As the names imply, episodic tension headaches relate to a specific episode of stress; chronic tension headaches are very frequent or daily, usually caused by consistent stress. Food sensitivities and poor nutrition can also be a factor as well as other lifestyle issues (see below).
Many a migraine sufferer can relate to the prehistoric, do-it-yourself brain surgeons although they usually opt for a quiet, dark room instead. Migraine headaches can incapacitate a person for up to several days. These pesky maladies commonly begin at the back of the head or start with a throbbing headache centered above an eye and spreads to one side. Along with throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head, there is also a sensitivity to light and sound and is often accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
Although less common than tension-type headaches, migraine headaches affect up to 30 million people in the United States. Three quarters of migraine sufferers are women. A group of neurological symptoms sometimes occur before the head pain begins which is called an aura, experienced by about 20% of migraine sufferers. An aura ordinarily affects vision and usually consists of brightly colored or blinking lights that move across the field of vision.
Although the causes of migraines are still vague, one common perception is how emotional stress may trigger a migraine headache. It is thought that migraine sufferers react quickly and easily to stress. When emotional stress arises, particular chemicals, such as serotonin, are released that provoke the vascular changes that cause a migraine headache. Stressful situations, eyestrain and skeletal misalignment can cause muscle tension, often adding to the severity of the headache. To compound matters, stress and fear of getting a migraine can trigger one.
Food allergies and sensitivities are other common causes of a migraines. Caffeine, chocolate, red wine and dairy products can often be triggers, although many other foods can be responsible depending upon the individual (see below).
Migraine attacks happen occasionally, although they can be as frequent as once or twice a week, but not daily. Migraines often correspond with a woman’s hormones and menstrual cycle creating “High Risk” times around her period, which may be why they have more migraines than men.
Cluster headaches affect about 1% of the population with most sufferers being men. This kind of headache happens in groups or clusters lasting up to several weeks or a month. Cluster headaches are extremely painful but last no more than an hour or two. The core of the pain can be around one eye and can make the eye inflamed. Nasal congestion may coincide with the inflammation.
Cluster headaches often reoccur the same time everyday during the cluster period. Alcohol can often initiate an attack and people who tend to smoke and drink heavily are more prone to cluster headaches.
Just when you thought it was over rebound headaches are instant replays of the headache. Overuse and abuse of pain relievers can be one of the main culprits in rebound headaches. Headaches may rebound as the dose wears off often causing people to reach for more of the pain reliever, thus starting a vicious cycle of pill popping to avoid pain. This is a good reason to explore natural headache remedies. In the case of migraines, as the pain subsides the opposite side tightens up from the release of the afflicted side and another migraine begins.
When your head feels like the size of the prize winning pumpkin at the county fair, with congestion of the sinuses and a constant, dull, deep ache that hurts more with head movement and is sensitive to touch, you probably have a sinus headache. These types of headaches are the result of sinus attacking maladies such as allergies, colds, flu and sinusitis and frequently include nasal discharge, ear sensations or fullness, facial swelling and tenderness over the affected sinuses. These and similar symptoms can be caused by vascular headaches and in many instances people experience a vascular headache with sinus problems. One way to distinguish the two is that a fever is often present with sinus headaches.
Sinus headaches are a result of swollen turbinates, which are the nasal structures that normally expand and contract. When the turbinates react to air particles, they can cause excess mucus and blockage of the nasal passage.
Almost everyone has had a headache at some point in their lives. Although they are very common, the causes may be elusive. Stress, tension and anxiety are the usual suspects as they can increase tension in the neck and shoulders that can initiate a headache.
Eyestrain can also bring on a headache. Long periods of time staring at a computer screen, watching television, reading, driving, over focusing and bright lights can strain the eye muscles and produce a headache. Having the eyes examined and the proper corrective lenses can help.
Spinal misalignment can also cause muscle strain and reduce blood flow to the brain resulting in a headache. The neck can easily be “out of whack” from something as simple as sleeping in an awkward position or more serious as inadequate recovery from an injury. Bodywork such as chiropractic, massage and biofeedback can be of great help.
Alignment correcting and stress reducing exercises such as yoga, tai chi and walking can be proactive prevention.
Food reactions can cause headaches or migraines. Caffeine is the big offender when it comes to headaches. Studies show a correlation between daily caffeine consumption and headache occurrence. On the flip side, stopping caffeine intake often causes withdrawal headaches. Chocolate, wheat, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sulfites, sugar, fermented foods, alcohol and vinegar are other foods. For migraines it is best to avoid dairy products, yellow cheeses and foods that contain the amino acids tyamine and phenylalanine, which are found in sugar substitutes and artificial flavorings. Nitrates are another trigger that are found in hot dogs and processed meats.
Toxicity can be an important factor in migraine and headache health, especially for recurring instances. Toxicity of the bowels, intestines and liver are the main areas in the body to address for headaches. This goes hand in hand with digestion and resolving food sensitivities.
Environmental toxins can also trigger a headache. Chemical sensitivities can cause a myriad of illnesses including headaches and migraines. Chemical toxins given off by conventional building materials can be an easily overlooked cause. Other offenders are dry cleaning solvents, cleaning supplies, air pollution and carpet adhesives.
Hormonal fluctuations can affect headaches, especially migraines, by influencing smooth muscle contraction and regulating blood pressure. Improving the detoxification action of the liver can help in a number of ways; not only for keeping toxins from becoming a problem but by eliminating excess hormones to keep hormones in balance.
Feverfew has been a heroic herb for headaches, especially migraines. The ability of feverfew to inhibit the release of serotonin, a powerful vasoconstrictor, from blood platelets is thought to be the way it works on migraines. During a migraine there is more blood flowing to the affected area while the blood vessels are constricting, thus causing pain. By feverfew inhibiting the release of serotonin, the capillaries stay free flowing, thus reducing pain. Several studies have shown promising results. One double blind study found a lower incidence of nausea and vomiting in migraine attacks. An observational study of 270 people found that with the extended use of feverfew, the frequency and severity decreased. In the real world people also found feverfew to be helpful as a preventative measure before an attack happens. Others find it helpful during an acute attack.
Peppermint is one of the more popular herbs in the world due to its flavorful aroma. The menthol in peppermint has many uses to keep the body healthy, including headaches, migraines, fevers and cold symptoms. Its usefulness for digestion and circulation can be helpful for these issues contributing to headaches. Peppermint’s powerful aroma is helpful for nasal congestion in both sinus headaches and sinus conditions associated with headaches.
With a long history of numerous uses, wood betony has been considered an important herb for all difficulties of the head. The Medica Britannica of 1666 considered wood betony to be helpful for even the most tenacious headaches. It was combined with other herbs and smoked to relieve headaches and was an ingredient found in Rowley’s British Snuff a famous blend often used for headaches. Wood betony is still used in preparations for its pain relieving qualities.
With its strong aroma, horseradish crosses the boundary between a condiment and an herbal remedy. The explosive bouquet of horseradish can help clear a stuffy head and make us gratefully reach for the nearest tissue. It is no surprise that herbalists in southern Germany have long used horseradish to relieve sinus congestion. Horseradish stimulates blood flow, a good consideration for the constriction of headaches. It can also aid in digestion and elimination that may be the source of a headache.
We are familiar with the crunch of lettuce in salads, although as an herbal assistant it can be quite helpful. Lettuce used for its health properties is different from the salad variety in that it is allowed to mature, whereas salad lettuce is harvested before it is fully grown. Considered an anodyne, lettuce is known for its nerve soothing and calming effects that help relieve pain. It also aids in digestion and elimination.
Other supplements include St. John’s wort for reducing serotonin levels and ginkgo biloba for improving circulation. Omega-3 Fatty acids and magnesium make a favorable impression for headache and migraine episodes.
As with most health issues, the best way to treat headaches and migraines is to not get them. Making lifestyle changes to avoid headache triggers can be of great help. Remember that gradual changes that make sense to you will be more effective than drastic changes that you do not stay with.
Keep a food diary to determine which foods may trigger a headache and cut down or eliminate them.
Adopt stress-reducing activities such as walking, singing, listening to calming music, meditating, taking a bath, etc.
Body work such as chiropractic, massage, acupuncture, biofeedback and aromatherapy may be the ticket.
Reduce eyestrain. If you work with a computer, take frequent breaks and look out a window. Follow ergonomically correct posture while at the keyboard. Television, reading and driving can also strain the eyes.
Exercise can loosen muscles, improve circulation and give eyes a chance to move and focus on varied distances. Remember walking and gardening are easy exercises that will work just fine.
Choose supplements that work for you and avoid unnatural fillers and harmful solvents.
It is possible to manage headaches naturally with a good dose of clean living. Being aware of what may be the cause of headaches can lead you to an empowering road to recovery, making headaches a thing of the past. Warning: eliminating headaches may result in having no excuse for declining dinner at your mother-in-law’s.
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From Spring 2000 Herbal Insights.
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