With over 50 million cases per year in the United States alone, headaches top the list of
the most common afflictions in humans. More than 70% of headache sufferers never
consult a doctor because they assume that little can be done to help them.
its true that not every headache can be cured, there are proven ways of controlling
them. This website has been prepared so that you might better understand
headaches--their nature, which symptoms to take seriously, the various types of headaches,
and their possible causes and treatment.
As with any other medical condition, a consultation with a
health professional is recommended before beginning a headache control program.
Headaches are caused by two different categories of biological happenings: either
by muscle contractions, or by vascular irregularities (the alternating constriction and
expansion of arteries). Certain conditions such as brain tumors, arterial
inflammation, and irritation of the facial nerves also cause headaches, but these are
Headaches Caused by Muscular Contraction
The attributes causing the pain are two mechanisms relating to muscle contraction:
nerve compression within the muscle caused by poor posture, spinal misalignment, or
physical and emotional stress; and nerve irritation caused by a buildup of metabolic
wastes resulting from decreased blood and lymph circulation due to poor diet,
constipation, or other digestive problems, and in women, pelvic irritation.
Headaches Caused by Vascular Irregularities
These types of headaches include migraines, cluster headaches, and caffeine withdrawal
headaches, that account for less than 10% of all cases. With vascular headaches, the
alternating constriction and expansion of the arteries of the head exerts pressure on
arterial nerves and causes sharp pain.
Although its rare, headaches can be caused by serious disorders such as brain
tumors or meningitis. Thats why you should never ignore chronic headaches and
hope theyll go away on their own. If any of the following symptoms occur,
consult your family physician or neurologist as soon as possible.
- Persistent headaches that progressively worsen over days or weeks.
- Headaches that start suddenly (especially important if youve never had them before
and youre over 50 years of age).
- Headaches that come on suddenly after coughing, straining, or exertion.
- Changes in vision (or other senses), double vision, increased weakness, or loss of
- Confusion or changes in memory, personality, or behavior.
- General weakness, numbness, or slurred speech.
- A stiff neck with a fever or a rash, or a seizure.
- An unexplained fever or breathing problems (i.e. shortness of breath), which accompany
- A sudden or dramatic change in the severity of your headaches.
- Headache after a head injury or accident, or after a sore throat or respiratory
- A constant headache with no relief.
- Persistent or severe vomiting.
- Experiencing three or more headaches a week.
- Use of a pain reliever every day or almost daily to relieve your headache symptoms.
- If you get a very sudden and excruciating headache unlike any youve ever had,
consult a doctor immediately.
While a biological condition may make you more susceptible to headaches, certain
factors called triggers are what actually set them off. Therefore, an
important step toward solving your headache problem is to analyze what was happening right
before your head began to hurt. What were you doing? Were you sunbathing?
Did you skip a meal? Were you having an argument? A trigger can be
almost any change inside or outside the body that can provoke a headache--something we
see, feel, smell, hear, or eat. Each headache sufferer has different sensitivities,
so not all triggers provoke a headache in all sufferers. Headaches may be produced
by one particular trigger, sometimes by a combination of them. Because something is
a trigger, however, doesnt mean it will always result in a headache; frequently, it
may not. Only by looking for possible patterns will you be able to identify your
personal triggers and avoid them in the future. The most common headache triggers,
in order of their frequency, are:
- Sudden weather changes.
- Hormonal changes caused by PMS, menstruation, birth control pills, pregnancy, or
- Missing a meal.
- Exposure to bright light (particularly fluorescent light or sunlight).
- Too little sleep.
- Reaction to certain foods eaten within the last 24 hours.
- Exposure to cigarette smoke, perfumes, or other strong odors.
- Experiencing a letdown after stress.
- Too much sleep.
- Exercise or exertion.
- The changing of the seasons (Spring and Fall are the worst).
- Medication, such as high blood pressure drugs with reserpine or hydralazine.
- Travel on planes, trains, cars, or buses, especially in compartments with poor air
Proper treatment of headaches involves careful diagnosis to locate the disturbance
actually causing headache pain. It is very important to keep track of your headaches
so your doctor can properly diagnosis your headache pain, type, and causes. One of
the most important tools in headache prevention is the headache diary. It is
used in determining the underlying causes and patterns related to your headache. Use
the diary to record on the days you get headaches:
- Warning Signs.
- Time Pain Began.
- Time Pain Ended.
- Type of Pain.
- Intensity of Pain (Low) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 (High).
- Location of Pain.
- Treatment/Medication Taken.
- Effect of Treatment.
- Hours of Sleep.
- What I Ate Today.
- Unusual Events Occurring.
- Additional Comments.
In order to help alleviate your pain, you first need to recognize what type of headache
you are having. Approximately 90% of all headaches are classified as tension-type
(sometimes referred to as muscle contraction headaches). Another 8% are migraine or
other types of headaches. Only about 2% of headaches are potentially more
serious--that is, secondary to an underlying illness or other medical condition.
- Other types:
A dull, steady, non-throbbing pain, usually on both sides of the head is common.
The pain can be mild to severe. Sometimes it feels as if your head is in the grip of
a vise or that you are wearing a tight band across your forehead and temples. Pain
may also extend into the neck and shoulder area.
Occasional tension headaches can last from 1 - 2 hours, to all day, or longer.
They often occur in the late afternoon or evening as a result of accumulated stress during
the day. Chronic tension headaches may occur every day, or almost every day, for
months or years. They may last from several hours to all day.
Emotional stress is the leading trigger of tension headaches, particularly among
chronic sufferers. But tension headaches may also be triggered by physical causes
such as arthritis, poor posture, or staying in one position for long periods of time.
Lack of sleep is also a common contributor to tension headaches. This is just one
aspect of the physical and emotional toll that working more and sleeping less takes on
most of us. Another more surprising effect, is difficulty sleeping. People who
dont get enough sleep often find it harder to handle the stresses of everyday life.
This, in turn, generates even more stress, which frequently interferes with getting
to sleep or sleeping through the night. The result is a lose-lose situation.
Tension headaches may be effectively treated with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers
as well as non-medicinal therapies. An extensive listing of such therapies is listed
under the headache treatment section. If chronic tension headaches occur
everyday or almost everyday, it is important that you consult a physician immediately.
These headaches are termed sinusitis. They are an inflammation of the
lining of the sinus cavities. There are two types of sinusitis:
- Acute sinusitis develops after an upper respiratory tract infection,
with symptoms usually clearing after 2 weeks of treatment.
- Chronic sinusitis results from an infection in the sinuses involving
the mucosal lining and the bones. Symptoms may not always resolve from drug treatment
and sometimes a surgical opening into the sinus area to allow adequate sinus drainage is
The symptoms of both types of sinusitis vary with the particular sinus or sinuses
involved. In general, the basic symptom is a constant or recurrent deep, dull
headache, which is usually around the nose, forehead, eyes, or ears. Facial pain,
sinus tenderness and pressure, stuffy nose, yellowish discharge from the nose, persistent
cough, loss of smell, and pain in the upper jaw, cheeks and even the teeth may also occur.
There may be swelling of the eyelids and excessive tearing if the sinuses over the
eyes are involved. Another symptom of sinusitis is drainage of mucus behind the nose
and down the back of the throat--also called postnasal drip. The pain
from sinusitis often worsens when you bend over. In most older children and in about
half of adults, fever is present.
Anyone can have sinusitis. In fact, sinusitis is one of the five most common
health complaints in the United States. However, certain groups of people may be
more likely to develop sinusitis.
- People who are frequently exposed to infection (for example, school teachers and health
workers) are especially susceptible.
- People with allergies are also prone to sinusitis because an allergy attack, like a
cold, causes congestion that blocks the sinus openings.
- Others who may be more likely to develop sinusitis include people who smoke (because
tobacco smoke and nicotine irritate the nasal passage and impair the bodys natural
resistance) and people with a crooked nose or deviated septum (because such conditions
impair good breathing and proper drainage).
Once a diagnosis of sinusitis is made, your doctor will probably prescribe a course of
treatment to clear up the source of infection and relieve your symptoms.
Treatment of sinusitis involves:
- Controlling the source of sinus infection.
- Re-establishing proper drainage of the nasal passages.
- Relieving sinus pain.
Antibiotics may be prescribed to eliminate the infection that is causing sinusitis.
As the infection subsides, so should the pain. However, antibiotics may take
several days to work, so your physician may also recommend an over-the-counter
decongestant and analgesic to help relieve sinus pain and re-establish proper drainage.
Among the most widely used non-prescription drug for relief of nasal congestion and
sinus pain is pseudoephedrine hydrochloride, a substance that shrinks the swollen mucous
membranes and thus restores proper nasal drainage. Ibuprofen, also available without
prescription, has been demonstrated to be effective in relieving headache pain and in
Antihistamines are also widely available, but should be avoided in treating sinusitis.
Although, they reduce swelling and let you breathe a little easier, they also dry
up the nose and thicken the mucus--exactly the opposite of what you want to do. Some
antihistamines may also make you drowsy adding to the discomfort of sinusitis.
Most cases of sinusitis are not serious and respond promptly to treatment.
However, untreated sinusitis can progress to more serious complications such as acute
bronchitis, asthma, ear infection, and even pneumonia.
To help lessen the discomfort that accompanies sinusitis, it may help to apply warm,
wet compresses or a hot water bottle to the painful area. Inhaling steam from a
vaporizer or bowl of steaming water and using a humidifier may also make you more
The pain is a mild or moderately dull pain around the front and back of the head; and,
it may be continuously present.
These headaches may occur 3 or 4 hours after a medication wears off. They may
occur daily or almost daily and last from 6 hours to a full day.
Rebound headaches are a result of overuse of over-the-counter medications and
sedatives, resulting in a tolerance/dependence cycle. Research by Dr. Simon Ellis,
of the North Staffordshire Infirmary in England, indicated that when people take pain
medication too often, they develop tolerance. When the drug wears off, the headache
Migraines involve a throbbing or pulsating pain, often worse on one side of the head.
Often people get a warning signal before a migraine attack. Fewer than one out
of five sufferers experience an aura, a disruption of brain functioning that
occurs 20 to 30 minutes before the attack. This is characterized by visual
disturbances like flashing lights, zigzag lines, and blurred or lost vision. Other
common symptoms include numbness or a tingling feeling around the lips or hands,
hallucinations, and loss of speech.
Other migraine sufferers get what is known as a prodrome. This is a
warning that occurs several hours or even a day before the attack. The symptoms may
include yawning, fatigue, mood changes (irritability, euphoria, depression, etc.), food
cravings, and sensitivity to light, sound, touch, or odors.
International Headache Society (IHS) criteria: Today there are
very specific symptoms than can be used as guidelines for diagnosing migraine headaches.
These are known as the IHS (International Headache Society) criteria. First,
your physician may rule out organic factors by examination and testing. After that,
its like a Chinese menu.
To be classified as migraine, your headache should include at least two symptoms
from Column A and at least one symptom from column B.
- Headache that is one-sided.
- Headache that is throbbing.
- Pain intensity that is moderate to severe, and restricts or inhibits functioning.
- Headache that is worsened by activity.
- Presence of nausea or vomiting.
- Sensitivity to light or sound.
Migraines vary widely in duration from a few hours to 3 days. On average,
migraine sufferers experience about one attack a month. Auras typically last about a
half hour and then subside before the pain begins. Whats more, incidences of
migraines appear to be on the rise. The National Center for Health Statistics
reports that during the past decade, migraines have increased by as much as 77% in women
under age 45 and by 64% in men of comparable age. Migraines are believed to be a
hereditary condition. About 70% of sufferers have other family members with the
condition. Migraines affect women more often than men . . . approximately 75% of
sufferers are women.
Although migraines have been recognized for thousands of years, no one knows for
certain what causes them. Today, however, medical science has a theory that may
explain why an attack occurs.
In a susceptible person, migraines often can be triggered by any of a whole range of
stimulating factors. It may be something you eat, smell, hear, or even see. Or
it may be related to activity, emotions, medications, or hormones. For some people,
one particular trigger may cause a migraine. In others, it may be a combination of
According to Dr. Douglas DeGood of the University Pain Management Center in
Charlottesville, Virginia, these triggers affect centers deep in the brain, causing the
blood vessels of the head to expand, and the area around them becomes inflamed, irritating
nerve endings. This irritation may account for the throbbing pain in the temple or
behind the eye which occurs during migraines.
Migraines are not like other kinds of headaches--they have very specific physical
causes, and a unique group of triggers. Triggers do not actually cause
migraines. If a person does not have a physical predisposition for migraines to
begin with, a trigger will probably have no effect. But for people who do have a
physical predisposition, a trigger is the catalyst that may set the attack in motion.
There are many conflicting theories of how triggers produce a migraine. Some
suggest triggers produce migraines by causing blood vessels to dilate (swell).
Others suggest just the opposite. For instance, one theory is that emotional
triggers (anger, frustration, depression, etc.) release adrenaline, the fight or
flight chemical, and this causes blood vessels to narrow. Once the emotion has
passed, the vessels open again and a headache results.
Triggers for migraines vary from individual to individual. Below is a list of
common migraine triggers:
Clinical research from The National Headache Foundation suggests that a large
percentage of all migraines are directly linked to food allergies or to reactions caused
by food additives, particularly certain preservatives and colorings, caffeine, and
Many sufferers are allergic to more that one food, and surprisingly the offending
allergies are often among the sufferers favorite foods. The most common
offenders are cows milk, eggs, wheat, cheese, and rye, along with benzoic acid (a
preservative), and tartrazine (a popular food dye). Other allergens may be hidden in
complex foods. For example, two common allergens, corn and brewers yeast, hide in
many recipes and even in some vitamin pills.
A well-kept headache diary plays an important role in discovering if dietary allergies
may be playing a part in your pain. Our list includes a variety of dietary migraine
Caffeinated foods and drinks: Coffee, tea, chocolate, colas/soft drinks.
Alcohol: Especially red wine, vermouth, champagne, beer.
Dairy products: Aged cheese, sour cream, whole milk, buttermilk, yogurt, ice cream.
ALLOWED: Low-fat or skim milk, no more than ½ cup of yogurt per day, soft cheeses
(except Camembert, mozzarella, and Brie) processed cheeses, butter, margarine, vegetable oils.
Breads: Sourdough, fresh yeast, some types of cereals.
Vegetables: Some types of beans (broad, Italian, lima, lentil, fava, soy),
sauerkraut, onions, peas, pickles, olives.
ALLOWED: String beans, onions--when used only for flavoring, asparagus, beets,
carrots, spinach, tomatoes, squash, corn, zucchini, broccoli, lettuce, potatoes.
Snacks: Nuts, peanuts, peanut butter, pickles, sesame seeds.
Meats: Organ meats, salted meats, dried meats, cured meats, smoked fish, meats with
nitrites (such as hot dogs, sausages, packaged lunch meats).
ALLOWED: Fresh and nonprocessed meats, eggs--when limited to no more than three per
week, fresh or frozen fish, canned tuna or salmon.
Fruits: Most citrus fruits, bananas, avocados, figs, raisins, papaya, passion
fruit, red plums, raspberries, plantains, pineapples.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)--a flavor enhancer often used in restaurants, found in
seasoned salt, instant foods, canned soup, frozen dinners, pizza, potato chips.
Soups: Soups containing MSG, soups made from bouillon cubes.
Desserts: Chocolate, licorice, molasses, cakes/cookies made with yeast.
Seasonings and Flavorings: Soy sauce, some spices, garlic powder, onion powder,
salt, meat tenderizers, some marinades.
Hunger: Missing meals, dieting.
Changes in your environment, many of them subtle, can trigger migraines.
- Sight: Bright lights, glare.
- Sound: Loud noises.
- Smell: Strong odors.
- Weather: Changes in temperature, humidity, wind, barometric pressure.
- Atmospheric pressure: Changes in altitude, air travel.
Emotions, especially stressful ones, are common triggers. Stress can be caused by
life changes (marriage, birth, death, divorce), catastrophes (fire, flood, bombings), or
even everyday events. Changes in emotions, whether positive or negative, can act as
Activity can trigger a migraine for some people and relieve a migraine for others.
- Motion from riding: Trains, planes, automobiles, bikes.
- Irregular exercise.
- Lack of exercise.
- Changes in sleep patterns.
- A fall or head injury.
Medications for non-migraine conditions and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and
analgesics, like aspirin, can trigger or worsen migraines. Many medications also
contain caffeine or additives, triggers for some people.
Some vitamin supplements: Recent studies have shown a link between migraines and
low levels of the mineral magnesium. Research by Dr. Burton Altura, of the State
University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn, New York, found that 42% of people
who suffered with intermittent migraines had low magnesium levels. And in tests using
imaging techniques to measure metabolic shifts in the brain during migraine attacks, it was
discovered that in some patients magnesium levels drop right before or during an attack.
B vitamins: While the link has not been clinically proven as with magnesium, there
is some evidence to suggest that people who suffer with migraines may have a lifelong
deficiency of some B vitamins.
Prescription medications: Some high blood pressure medications, nitroglycerin, OTC
pain relievers, and analgesics.
Hormone fluctuations can trigger migraines, though in some women, they may alleviate
migraines. Hormone levels can be affected by the following:
- Birth control pills.
- Estrogen supplements.
- Menstrual cycle.
Another common cause of headaches is blood clotting, also known as platelet
aggregation. Clotting creates constriction of the arteries, which results in inadequate
blood supply to the brain. This is then followed by a rebound dilation of the blood
vessels, leading to headaches. Studies have shown that the platelet of migraine
sufferers release abnormal amounts of serotonin (a chemical in the brain), which enhances
the arteries constriction.
Smoking can also trigger headaches. According to studies, nicotine constricts the
blood vessels while inhaled carbon monoxide overly expands them, thus creating a condition
which often triggers migraines and cluster headaches. Smoking also cuts down the
effectiveness of pain relievers, and may disrupt the nutritional balance of the body.
Dental problems can also contribute to headaches. Many dentists treat patients
who have headache problems they have been unable to cure by other means. Semi-annual
dental check-ups are valuable in helping to avoid migraines triggered by dental problems.
The foundation for effective treatment of any medical disorder is an accurate diagnosis
by a physician. In the case of migraines, this is almost entirely based on a
thorough medical history of the patient. The key to developing this history is
effective communication between physicians and patients, including a detailed headache
diary, and recognition of certain triggers of the migraines.
Medicinal Therapies: Migraine sufferers experience such headaches that it
is quite understandable why they might turn to quick pill-popping remedies. Although
over-the-counter medications might meet the need for quick pain relief, the result is
often an analgesic rebound headache triggered by the high amounts of caffeine
in store-bought remedies.
Other Types of Headaches
CLUSTER: These are relatively uncommon. Though the cause
of these headaches is unknown, researchers do suspect an interaction of the blood vessels
and the nervous system.
The primary symptom of a cluster headache is excruciating, sharp-as-a-knife pain around
one eye. The attacks occur daily in clusters of weeks or months, then disappear
completely for months or years. Ninety percent of sufferers are males, and most are
between the ages of 20 to 30.
HANGOVER: Caused when nerve endings on the blood vessels become
sensitive after being exposed to chemicals in the bloodstream, such as the breakdown of
alcoholic beverages. These headaches often greet the drinker the morning after the
drinking has occurred. Sufferers may experience a pounding headache as well as
sensitivity to light and noise.
According to research at Harvard Medical School, brandy, cheap brands of rum, and red
wine have been found to produce the worst hangover headaches, whereas gin and vodka are
less likely to produce this type of headache.
MIXED: The mixed headache is a fairly new classification.
Patients suffering from mixed headaches experience various combinations of tension-type
headaches and migraine headaches. Often a person who has suffered for years from one
type of headache will begin to experience the other as well. This phenomenon has led
many researchers to believe that these two forms of headaches may share a common mechanism
in the brain.
NIGHTTIME: These headaches, occurring at or just before bedtime,
are often accompanied by sleeplessness. Stress from your daily activities may be the
source of your pain--check your headache diary. There are a variety of
over-the-counter PM pain relievers which help to alleviate both the headache and the
According to the Excedrin Headache Resource Centers educational outreach program,
the ingredients in combination PM products are not addictive when taken as directed on the
label. People who use them awaken alert and well-rested the following morning.
ORGASM: Brief, intense headaches during or immediately following
orgasm are rather common, but usually are not a cause for worry. Researchers at
Harvard Womens Health Watch arent certain what causes such headaches, but they
suspect changes in blood vessels and muscles that occur naturally during sexual activity
are a factor. If this problem is common for you, taking ibuprofen or another
nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug prior to sexual activity may help ward off the pain.
Just as there are many different types of headaches, there are many different types of
treatment. What works for one person, may not be as effective for another.
Overall, the best form of treatment is certainly prevention of the headache in the first
place. Be aware of your own personal headache triggers and attempt to avoid
them. Having said that, we realize that avoidance of triggers is not always possible
and may not always be the answer. The following list of treatment alternatives,
whether used separately or together, should be of assistance to you when a headache does
A 1993 study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that a third of
Americans surveyed had used at least one form of alternative therapy in the
past year. And the National Institute of Health has established an Office of
Alternative Medicine to fund research on over 25 different alternative practices.
Gauging the effectiveness of these therapies will not be easy. Few careful,
scientific studies have been conducted. The following guide is based on what is
known today, and will perhaps give you some effective alternatives to medicinal therapies.
Cold therapy: The Doctors Book of Home Remedies by Rodale
Press, Inc. suggests an ice pack as one of the most effective non-drug treatments.
The earlier you use an ice pack to treat your headache, the better. Besides applying
it to the painful area, try placing it on the back of the neck, forehead, and temples.
Warm therapy: Using heat to foster relaxation increases blood
flow and relaxes your muscles. Take a warm shower, letting the water beat down on
your head, neck, shoulders, and back. Hot tubs and heating pads can have a similar
result. Be cautious not to burn yourself--warm is better than boiling hot.
Experiment with both cold and warm treatments to see which works best for you.
Time out: Remove yourself from a stressful situation by taking a
walk or by taking a few minutes to concentrate on something relaxing. Concentrate on
the relaxing quietness. A five-minute time out "vacation" is a quick and
easy stress reducer.
Transcendental meditation: TM is a technique that purports to
facilitate the bodys natural healing ability. Patients sit comfortably with
their eyes closed for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day, concentrating on a "mantra,"
a word or sound. Their minds become progressively more tranquil until they reach a
point of "transcendental consciousness," and gross physical experiences (such as
pain) are transcended (overshadowed).
Creative imagery: This process uses the mind to visualize images
that relieve pain. For example, patients may close their eyes and imagine themselves
on a tropical beach, a cool sea breeze blowing away their headache. Or the image may
be more literal. Instead of the beach, the patient may imagine his or her headache
being caused by dilated blood vessels in the brain. The patient then imagines these
blood vessels constricting, thus relieving the cause of the headache.
Guided visual imagery: Proven especially effective in
controlling the pain accompanying migraine headaches, it is most useful if you use guided
visual imagery in the beginning stages of your headache. Even in the midst of the
most painful attacks, patients have been able to take their mental focus away from the
pain through this technique. To use guided imagery, close your eyes and compare your
pain to a physical event. For example, you may see your migraine as a raging forest
fire. View this scene in your mind and feel the pain it brings. Next, bring
the scenario to a happy ending. Picture this forest fire being drowned by torrential
rain. Tell yourself that as the fire goes out in your scene, so does your pain.
The number of imaginary scenes like this example that can be used to mentally
"drown" your pain is limitless. Try making up several and then plan to use
them when you have a headache. After a while, you will get an idea of which ones
work best for you.
Progressive relaxation: This is a technique that attempts to
relax the body until it reaches a state of detachment and well-being. With
progressive relaxation, each part of the body is alternately tensed for about 20 seconds,
then relaxed. When all the parts of the body have gone through this process, the
patient lies in this detached state for periods of five minutes of more.
Deep breathing: Take deep, slow breaths, concentrating on
breathing from your diaphragm. Hold your breath for several seconds, then slowly
exhale, completely emptying your lungs. Repeat several times. As you inhale,
your chest and stomach areas should expand; and, as you exhale, these areas should
contract (shrink). Many times the pain of a headache can be intensified by improper
breathing, most specifically hyperventilation. When we are in danger, in a panic, or
very anxious (as we might be when we sense a headache is coming), we tend to take short,
shallow breaths that reduce the amount of oxygen we take into our body. When you
feel a headache coming on, its very possible that you are exacerbating the pain by
changing your breathing pattern. Deep breathing exercises can help you normalize
your breathing, which will reduce the intensity of your pain.
Stretching and exercising: Gentle neck and shoulder exercises
may be used to relax and stretch strained, shortened muscles. This can reduce
tension and decrease the risk of headaches triggered by muscle irritation. For some
people, strengthening exercises are also recommended. The following basic exercises,
recommended by headache experts, are effective for both tension and migraine headache
For best results, be sure to breathe deeply and stretch slowly and gently. DO NOT
PUSH! If you have any neck, shoulder, or back injuries, consult your physician
before trying any of these exercises.
- Neck rotation--Keeping your head level, slowly turn it until you are looking straight
out over one shoulder. Hold this position for 1-2 seconds, then gently move your head
to look down at this shoulder. Return your head to center, then repeat the procedure
with your other shoulder. Repeat the entire process 5 times for each shoulder.
For greater stretch, remain in each position for 10-20 seconds.
- Shoulder retraction--With your fingertips touching behind the tops of your ears and your
elbows raised, attempt to squeeze your should blades together. Make sure not to push
or pull on your neck. Hold the position for 5 seconds and then release.
- Upper back stretch--With your arms extended in front of your body, clasp your hands
together. Gently pull your should blades apart, then drop your chin to your chest.
Hold this position for 10-30 seconds.
- Neck retraction--Squeeze your should blades together. Then gently move your head
straight back, making sure to keep it level. Hold this position for 5-10 seconds, then
relax. Repeat 10 times.
- Chinning--Starting with your head level and looking straight ahead, inhale and tuck in
your chin. Then exhale and stick out your chin. Repeat 3-5 times. This
exercise helps your head stay in the proper position on your neck.
- Shoulder shrug--Relax your arms at your sides, then lift your shoulders to your ears.
Squeezing your shoulder blades together, rotate your shoulders to the back and then
down. Repeat 10 times. Note: Never rotate your shoulders forward.
Aerobic exercise: While an excellent countermeasure against the
effect of stress, its important that the exercise you select is something you enjoy
and that fits your schedule, as well as your level of skill. If stress is a problem
for you, you may want to avoid highly competitive sports. Many people find that
non-competitive forms of exercise such as swimming, cycling, walking, or calisthenics are
better choices. And when you do have a headache, if its not too severe, go for
a walk. Aerobic exercise not only helps you relax, but also increases your levels of
endorphins, a naturally occurring brain chemical that diminishes pain. Always check
with your physician before beginning any exercise program.
Massage: A good neck and shoulder massage can relieve the muscle
tension caused by stress. It can improve circulation inhibited by constricting blood
vessels. Both of these changes can ease the pain of a mild headache. A
professional massage therapist administering Swedish massage can often provide pain relief
as well as aid in the prevention of pain.
Chiropractic: There is evidence that chiropractic treatment is
effective in the management and alleviation of headache pain. A reason for this
effectiveness seems to be that stiffness and pain in the cervical (the neck area) spine is
a frequent and major factor of headaches.
Proper nutrition: Missing a meal and other improper eating
habits can bring on a headache. If you havent had time to eat properly, get a
healthy snack, such as a piece of fruit, or even a glass of water.
Acupressure: Many headache sufferers are doing this without even
realizing it. The technique for acupressure remains the same regardless of the
pressure point you use. Apply gentle, steady rotating pressure to the point with
your index finger or thumb. Maintain pressure for 7 to 15 seconds, then release.
Repeat every few minutes as needed.
Reflexology: The fleshy underpart of the big toe is the area of
the foot believed to relate to the health of the neck area. Vigorously massaging the
underside of the big toe is believed to open the constricted blood vessels in the neck
that are causing the headache response. If you find that the pain of your headache
is most intense in the back of your head, try massaging the underside of the middle toe
for additional pain relief.
Acupuncture: Recognized as a successful technique for pain
relief, acupuncture uses hair-thin needles to stimulate specific points of the body
through which an energy known as qi (pronounced chee) flows. Qi is believed to be
the bodys life force or vitality. The goal of acupuncture is to restore a
smooth flow of qi throughout the body. A more conventional explanation of its
effectiveness it that acupuncture stimulates nerves in the skin and muscle that signal the
release of chemical known as endorphins, the bodys natural pain relievers.
Though several studies have shown favorable results in using acupuncture for the
treatment of headaches, larger and better controlled studies are needed before
acupunctures effectiveness is scientifically proven.
Hypnosis: An accepted therapy for a host of conditions and
practiced by thousands of health professionals, hypnosis may be effective for headache
sufferers. By placing patients in a hypnotic trance then making therapeutic
suggestions, the sensation of pain is able to be reduced. Although studies such as
Dr. Karen Olness, of Case Western Reserve University, show the effectiveness of
hypnosis in treating children with migraine headaches, more and better controlled studies
are needed before hypnosis effectiveness is scientifically proven.
Botanical/Herbal medicine: Many herbal medicines claim to dull
the symptoms of headaches. Being used extensively in England, and despite the fact
that many headache experts in the United States regard its use as experimental, the herb
feverfew has received the attention of the National Headache Foundation. Recent
findings of the Foundation report that continually taking feverfew extracts decreases the
occurrence of migraine headaches in certain individuals.
Other homeopathic practices have often been found to relieve the pain of headaches.
There are several popular remedies, but each is unique to the specific
characteristics of the individuals pain. Therefore, it is difficult to offer
generalized therapies. However, those most commonly used in the treatment of
headache pain are belladonna, bryonia, and nux vomica.
Belladonna is commonly used to treat the violent, throbbing pain of migraines
that are aggravated by light, noise, touch, strong or unusual smell, or motion, and are
characteristically worse in the afternoon. Belladonna is the most commonly
prescribed homeopathic medicine for headaches associated with high fever, and is unique in
that it suits headaches relieved by sitting or made worse by going down a slope or
Bryonia is best used to treat the steady ache of migraines that are severely
aggravated by motion. Sufferers who cannot even make slight motions with the head or
eyes without increasing the pains intensity are likely candidates for this
homeopathic remedy. Bryonia is commonly suggested for the treatment of headaches
that are worse in the morning and are accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
Nux vomica is commonly suggested for the treatment of migraines caused by
overeating, alcohol, coffee, other drugs, or fatigue. It also frequently helps those
sufferers who feel especially irritable.
It is best to consult a qualified homeopathic professional about taking any of these
Psychotherapy: Because headaches can be caused or aggravated by
stress, a variety of psychological therapies can be helpful in reducing the frequency and
intensity of these headaches. All require the help of a professional therapist.
- Cognitive therapy--The way you think about your pain influences your experience of it.
Cognitive therapy can teach you to think about your headache pain in ways that can
raise your pain threshold, thereby diminishing the debilitating aspect of your condition.
Cognitive therapy can also help you change the way you think in general.
- Behavioral therapy--This is an appropriate approach for headache sufferers who have
developed pain behaviors in response to their disorder. Common pain behaviors
include chronic complaining and worrying, incessant talking about the headache experience,
developing dependent or helpless attitudes, withdrawing from social activities, and
anticipating headaches at every turn of the day. A therapist can offer concrete
steps that can help you overcome these habits and give you a more positive and active role
to play in you own pain management.
- Other kinds of psychotherapy including couples, family, supportive, exploratory,
psychoanalysis, and Gestalt have also helped headache sufferers find the root of their
pain and deal with its presence in their lives.
Sexual activity: Making love may be a tonic for head pain.
Research has shown that many people get full or partial headache relief from having
sex. Sexual activity releases endorphins, the bodys natural pain killer.
Good posture: Posture plays a key role in many tension
headaches. Avoid leaning or tilting your head to one side (a problem for frequent
phone users). Be aware of your posture as you sit at your computer/desk, drive your
car, stand in line at the grocery store, or carry a bag/purse. Many of the positions
we put ourselves in tighten neck and back muscles--leading to tension headaches.
Biofeedback: One of the few natural therapies endorsed by the
National Headache Foundation, and commonly used in headache centers, biofeedback can
reduce both the frequency and severity of headaches. A machine is used to provide
feedback to sufferers about muscle tension (which is associated with pain) and blood flow
to the hands. Using this information, patients learn to reduce muscle tension in
their bodies and to increase the blood flow to their hands. When blood is directed
to the hands, it reduces the rush of blood that has strained the vessels in and around the
head area. As these blood vessels become less swollen, the head pain subsides.
Studies have shown that up to 92% of the people who learn biofeedback techniques
can reduce the intensity of their pain. In fact, biofeedback is often used to wean
patients from their dependence on drugs to natural and holistic forms of therapy.
A skilled biofeedback professional is needed to help you learn the skills involved.
But once youve learned how to control your response to your tension and
headaches, this relaxation technique is easy to do at home.
Autogenic training: This relaxation technique is actually a
combination of guided imagery, meditation, and biofeedback. The ultimate goal is to
regulate the bodys blood flow and bring it back to a normalized rate. Because
headaches are often triggered by irregular blood flow, improved circulation will lessen
the pain. Practicing autogenic training on a routine schedule can serve to reduce
the frequency of headache attacks.
Try this example of an autogenic exercise for your headache:
Lie down in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and attempt to shut out all
other thoughts, especially those of your headache. (Since autogenics relies on
getting a message to your unconscious mind, it is extremely important to concentrate on
clearing the lines of communication to your unconscious mind.) Next recite the
following six lines over and over in a slightly audible tone:
- My arms and legs are heavy.
- My arms and legs are warm.
- My heartbeat is calm and regular.
- My breathing is calm and regular.
- My abdomen is warm.
- My forehead is cool.
We realize that no website can provide all the answers for everybody, but we hope
weve been able to help you answer some of your questions about headaches.
The Counseling Center at Sam Houston State University has staff available to assist you
with the diagnosis and treatment of your headache. We can help you establish your
headache diary, recommend various treatments, and make any needed referrals to other
health care providers. In its effort to assist students and staff, the Counseling
Center also offers biofeedback therapy.
Should you have more questions regarding headaches or wish to make an appointment with
a staff member, call 936/294-1720.
Finally, DO NOT GIVE UP. Hopefully, you will work towards an alliance with your
health care provider and together arrive at a treatment plan that works for you.
There are many myths about headaches, but the most destructive of all is, "You just
have to learn to live with it." Dont accept it. We have come a long
way in our understanding of this disorder, and research continues today. Do not give
up and good luck!
Association for Applied Psychophysiology and
American Council for Headache Education (ACHE)
Information on Acupressure
American Massage Therapy Association
American Psychological Association
Diamond Headache Clinic--created in 1972 to
aid headache sufferers
American Dietetic Association
National Headache Foundation
American Academy of Medical
Information on Imitrex
The American Institute of Stress
Updates on FDA Drug Approvals and Clinical Drug
Great Links Information and Organizations
If you would like to learn more about Headaches, the Counseling Center has a variety of
resources to help you. Call or stop by the Counseling Center to make an appointment
to talk with a counselor. The Counseling Center is located across from the Lee Drain
Building, next to the Farrington Building. The telephone number is (936) 294-1720.