Chronic Headaches: Finding the answer by being your own detective

Many people deal with headaches from time to time and an increasing number of people complain of chronic headaches.  Headaches can significantly impair one’s ability to function and participate in the activities of day to day life.  Over 90% of individuals who have headaches have some variant of the two most common types of headaches: tension-type and migraine headaches.  In this article we will discuss common triggers for these heaheadachedaches and touch on strategies that you can use to identify and address these issues in your daily life.  Please note, if you have new headaches, headaches that are increasing in severity, are associated with neurologic symptoms (e.g. numbness, weakness) or are highly concerning in any other way, you should seek prompt evaluation by a healthcare provider.

While the causes of headaches are not fully understood, it is clear that headaches like many other health issues can often be a sign of imbalance in our lives.  To fully treat and ‘cure’ headaches, we need to be willing to look at several areas of our life that may be contributing to our headaches: the food we eat, sleep patterns, life stressors (internal and external), and our current use of medication. It is important to know that most medications used to treat headache pain (prescription and non-prescription), can actually lead to increased headaches over time if they are used too frequently.  This phenomenon is called ‘medication rebound headache’.  If you suffer from frequent headaches and are taking medications more than a couple of times per week, these medications may be a potential cause for your headaches.  Consider decreasing your use of medication (if you are on prescription medication, please discuss decreasing your dose with your healthcare provider).   You can also see your healthcare provider to discuss starting medication or supplements that might be more effective in preventing headaches before they occur.

One of the best ways to get insight into patterns that may be contributing to your headache is to keep a headache diary (click link to download an example).  This is a place where you can record information about your headaches (timing, duration, associated activities, what makes it better).  Keeping a record like this for a period of time (usually several weeks) can help you begin to see patterns that may be contributing to your headaches.  For instance, do you often get headaches when you have slept poorly the night before, when you are worried about a loved one, have  been sitting at the computer for hours or when you eat at a certain restaurant?  This information can be very helpful for you to use and make changes that eliminate possible headache triggers.

Certain foods and food additives commonly play a role in triggering headaches (especially migraines).   These include: caffeine (found in sodas, coffee, energy drinks and chocolate), nitrites (a chemical preservative used in many processed foods like luncheon meats, salamis, hot dogs, etc.), monosodium glutamate (a flavor enhancer that gives a salty taste to many processed foods), and aspartame (the artificial sweetener used in many sugar-free beverages and snack foods).   It can be helpful to start paying attention and seeing where you can eliminate these foods in your diet.  Eliminating these processed foods may reduce your headaches and can be a boost to your overall health in general.  To help with this process there are special diets (called headache elimination diets) that you can try where you eliminate many of these common headache-triggering foods.  Changing one’s diet so dramatically can be a big undertaking.   However, the results can often be dramatic and are often seen in days.

No discussion would be complete without stress.  Stress can impact every aspect of our health and functioning.  Headaches are no exception.   It is essential that we find ways to relieve stress.  Massages and regular exercise are helpful.  But, you can start most simply by doing daily relaxation breathing exercises.  These can begin to break the cycle of muscle tension and excitatory brain signals that are felt to contribute to chronic headaches.  If you spend many hours seated at a desk and in front of a computer, regular stretching  is also important.

Now you have lots of great tools at your disposal to start figuring out the potential causes of your headaches and start getting relief today  (headache diaries, diet changes, stress management techniques).  Using these tools does not cost anything and can often result in dramatic improvements of tension and migraine headaches. So start being your own headache detective and find out what are your triggers and what strategies work for you.  You have the power to improve your health and your functioning starting today!

The information contained herein should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an appropriately qualified and licensed physician or other health care provider. The information provided here is for educational and informational purposes only. In no way should it be considered as offering medical advice. Please check with a healthcare provider if you suspect you are ill.

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