Correcting Headaches Naturally
Forty-two million Americans consult physicians for headache relief each year. Tens of millions more seek remedies outside the doctor's office. Over 250,000,000 work days and $25,000,000,000 are lost in job productivity due to headaches.
What you need to know
Read below for signs of headaches indicating medical emergency. These are rare. Ninety-Eight percent of all other headaches can be dealt with by conservative means. Chiropractic manipulation of the neck and therapeutic massage will resolve most headaches because they are tension related. Migraines can be resolved with those treatments too, but might also need some nutrient supplementation. Drugs are rarely a good answer. There are many lifestyle changes and natural treatments that can help dramatically. See the details of these in the discussion that follows below.
A More Detailed Discussion of Headaches
Headaches, like most other pain syndromes, are not so much problems in themselves that need simply to be relieved but warning signals identifying dysfunction in one or more of our bodily functions. Less than 2% of headache cases that reach a physician's attention are caused by serious brain lesions such as tumors, aneurysms, or infections. So, approximately 98% of all headaches are the result of problems that are best dealt with outside the arena of pharmaceutical/surgical care.
The two major causes of headache are biochemical abnormalities and nerve-muscle-joint dysfunction. They overlap, as in the case of headaches caused by hypertension when part of the elevated blood pressure is due to too much salt in the diet and a "tense" lifestyle causing constricted blood vessels. And another component is the muscle tension creating trigger point headaches. Of all the causes most people experience headaches when several of these factors come into play. Remember, there is seldom ever just one cause to any health problem. The interrelatedness of life dictates that cause and effect relationships are usually complex.
So what do you do if you have a headache? Mindlessly mask these warning signals like the television ads and pharmaceutical companies want you to?
200,000 to 300,000 cases of gastrointestinal bleeding occurs each year causing an estimated 14,000 deaths due to the use of non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory pain medication like aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen.
Or rush off for an MRI fearing a brain tumor?
A wise, holistically-minded health care consumer will intelligently investigate the root causes and build a health enhancement program to address those parts of his life which are the most likely origin of the symptoms.
Headaches as a Sign of a Serious Emergency
To be safe we can prioritize those headaches that might need urgent medical attention by certain characteristics:
Contact a physician or the emergency room immediately if there is a head injury with or without loss of consciousness, plus any of the following symptoms several days after the injury: temperature elevated over 100 degrees F, double or blurred vision with dilated or unequally sized pupils, nausea, vomiting, confusion, convulsions, incoordination, loss of bladder or bowel control, excessive drowsiness, or ear buzzing and ringing that is not brought about by high aspirin consumption.
If the headache began two to twenty-four weeks ago and has increased in intensity it may be a fairly rapidly developing space occupying lesion or other medical emergency. If the severe pain of the same recent onset is accompanied by neck rigidity, it could be a serious subarachnoid hemorrhage; or if there is a fever it could be meningitis. If the pain is in one eye with blurred vision and halos around lights it could be acute glaucoma that needs immediate care. If you are over the age of 50 with a painful, tender temple accompanied by malaise, fever, inability to eat, and difficulty chewing there is the possibility of temporal arteritis. All these situations should be immediately evaluated by your physician.
For moderate headaches or periodic recurrent ones like those of migraine, tension, post-concussion syndrome, stress, biochemical imbalance, high blood pressure, mild infections, or eye strain, which account for 98% of all headaches, approaches other than standard medical disease care are more likely to help.
Tension headaches are the most predominant type of head pain. For the problems of muscle tension that create these symptoms, it is not only important to alleviate the muscle tightness and the neurological disruption that accompanies it but also to address the perpetuating factors that drive the muscle into recurrent spasm. This can be seen as a two-fold approach---one working on the neuro-muscular structure and function, the other on the lifestyle stress.
Everyone has to evaluate and prioritize how much effort, time, and money needs to be spent on the different elements of lifestyle change involved in getting to the roots of these disturbances. Psychotherapy, biofeedback training, relaxation exercises, relationship work, occupational changes, and meditative practices have all proven to be valuable in the comprehensive treatment of headache. This is because of the powerful impact these factors can have on muscle tension levels.
Post-concussion syndrome (persistent headache, fatigue, personality aberrations, difficulty sleeping, memory and concentration deficits) that follows head injury or neck whiplash robs at least 2 million people of their normal function and health every year in the U.S. Motor vehicle accidents are by far the most common cause. Manipulative and physio-therapy rehabilitation is essential for complete recovery. Often times nutritional supplementation guided by Monoamine Transporter Optimization can greatly help the nerves recover frome their traumatic insult and eliminate persistent symptoms.
Concerning the more immediate approaches to direct correction of the neuro-musculo-skeletal elements of the problem, many approaches are valuable:
1.Soft Tissue Manipulation
A. Deep Tissue Massage
B. Transverse Friction Massage
C. Spray and Stretch Technique
D. Proprioceptive Neuro-muscular Facilitation Technique (PNF)
Key muscles -- Posterior cervical, scalenes, trapezius, sternocleidomastoid, masseter, anterior temporalis, sub-occipital
A. Spinal (particularly the neck)
C. Extremity (occasionally shoulder restrictions)
3.Physical Therapy Modalities
A.Electrical Muscle Stimulation
Which combination of the above modalities is best suited for any particular individual is best decided in close consultation with Dr. Collins. Refer to our free lesson on Chiropractic and Massage in the Stress Management Course for more information on this aspect of proper health care for headaches. During this process of neuro-musculo-skeletal rehabilitation, exercise can play a key role in recovery as well as overall health enhancement. Strength, flexibility, aerobic conditioning, and coordination, all assist in muscular integrity that diminishes the chances of headaches arising out of these tissues. There are many opportunities for doing self care when soft tissue massage and stretching are major treatment components. HealThySelfNow.com has developed some self care tools and instruction for the care of muscle tension headaches. They are available at the clinic. The stress management elements of the problem are often crucial factors in the long term correction of headaches so use the free Stress Management Course to really achieve the best results.
Sometimes the skill of a dentist who specializes in temporomandibular joint problems is called for when the above approaches are not sufficient to deal with them. But usually chiropractic manipulation, craniosacral work and therapeutic massage make dramatic changes in a short time. When eye strain is part of the cause for the headache an optometrist skilled in diagnostic techniques to identify stereoscopic tracking incoordination and one skilled in prescribing visual exercise might be best to consult with. Often corrective lenses are in order.
A. pollens, dust, molds, dander
B. inhalant chemicals, "sick building syndrome"
C. food, MSG, aspartame
B.mercury dental amalgam
C. toxic bowel syndrome
D. chemical exposure (ie. pesticides, industrial solvents .... )
A. caffeine intake and withdrawal
B. hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
C. vaso-active amine consumption: (ie. tyramine, phenylethylamine, chocolate, cheese, alcohol .... )
A.hypocalcemia (low calcium in the blood)
B.deficiency of vitamins B1, B2, B3, or magnesium
C.excessive vitamin A, D, or zinc
5.Biochemical abnormalities that can be corrected without drugs or surgery
A. hypothyroidism (low thyroid function)
C. mild infections such as sinusitis, colds
E. high blood pressure
F. brain neurotransmitter imbalances
These are some of the more frequent biochemical causes of headache. If there is a suspicion that recurrent headaches occur in a pattern due to exposure to different foods or are related to certain environments or seasons, more detailed testing should be done to verify this likelihood. The simplest are symptom diaries that one can then correlate to food consumption or location. These are usually difficult and inaccurate since allergic reactions can occur as much as 72 hours after exposure. Elimination diets are a bit more accurate but still involve inconvenience and interpretive grey areas. IgE RAST testing for inhalants of all kinds and ELISA/ACT testing for foods is the most accurate and cost effective method of allergy testing to date. In addition they can evaluate the reactivity of other types of environmental contaminants which may be problematic. The most common reactive foods to cause migraine headaches are dairy, gluten and wheat, cereal grains, yeast, cane sugar, citrus, eggs, and corn. MSG and aspartame are two notorius food additives that can trigger migraines and should be avoided. Nutramed has some excellent information concerning migraines and food allergy.
Exposure to toxic substances is almost unavoidable in modern society. Minimizing exposure and building up our body's defenses are the best we can do. Check living and working areas and eliminate potential hazards using Debra Dadd-Redalia's book, Sustaining the Earth: Choosing Consumer Products That Are Safe for You, Your Family, and the Earth. If there are significant mercury amalgam dental fillings to be concerned about you can ask your dentist or primary care physician to be tested for mercury.
Toxic bowel syndrome might be suspected if malodorous stools and flatulence is a problem. Testing can be done at a holistic physician's office who uses a comprehensive stool and digestive analysis or a similar diagnostic panel. Correction usually involves bowel detoxification, improved diet, and nutritional supplements which include healthy forms of Lactobacillus acidophilus. See our free Wise Nutrition Course for more detailed instruction on the healthiest diet.
Caffeine intake and withdrawal are well known causes of headaches. Simple solution: no caffeine. Erratic blood sugar levels from poor dietary practices is also a very frequent cause of headaches. Using the nutritional guidelines in the section on Wise Nutrition will solve most hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) problems. Allergies also cause hypoglycemia, so that has to be considered in addition, particularly food allergies. Some people react to vaso-active amines like phenylethylamine that is found in chocolate. Some professionals consider this to be an allergic type reaction or food intolerance. By whatever name they go by, or by whatever method of identification is needed, find these irritative substances and eliminate them from the diet.
Nutrient levels can cause headaches also. On rare occasions excessively large and prolonged intake of supplemental A, D, or zinc can elicit a headache. A simple test and simple solution---a trial vacation from these supplements will bring quick relief. Much more frequent, though, is nutrient deficiency, particularly magnesium deficiency in cases of migraine headache. Since testing for nutrient deficiency is expensive and has variable reliability, often a more cost-effective approach is to take a high potency multi-vitamin and multi-mineral supplement for a six month trial period.
For migrainers 600-800 mg of magnesium malate per day decreases the frequency, intensity and duration of headaches. This is particularly so with hormonally triggered migraines in women around their menstrual cycles. Vitamins B-2, B-6, B-12, and folic acid have been found to dramatically reduce migraines in multiple scientific studies.
Neurotransmitter imbalance within the brain can be corrected with nutritional supplementation of specific, balanced amino acids and their vitamin and mineral catalysts. This can frequently eliminate the need for medication in 95% of migraine headaches. In the Health Articles section you can read more about Monoamine Transporter Optimization, otherwise known as, Brain Neurotransmitter Balance.
There is a wide variety of biochemical abnormalities which can cause headaches. The vast majority can be dealt with by natural holistic approaches, not medical or surgical ones. Finding a good holistic physician to help might be indicated, but much can be done with self care.
1. Nelson, Craig and Boline, Patrick. "A Consensus on the Assessment and Treatment of Headache." Chiropractic Technique,Vol. 3, No. 4, November 1991, p. 151.
2. Theisler, Charles. Migraine Headache Disease: Diagnostic and Management Strategies. Aspen Publishers, 1990.
3. Collins, Thomas. Freedom From Headaches. Thomas M. Collins Chiropractic, Inc., 2005