Understanding Headaches

By Heather Kew, Registered Massage Therapist

We describe it as suffering from headaches, and that phrase couldn’t be more accurate. For some people, a headache is a rare occurrence with a very specific cause. For some unlucky people, headaches are a weekly, or even daily occurrence with no clear rhyme or reason. It doesn’t always have to be this way: there are some preventative measures, as well as treatments that can help.

Headache Types and Causes

The first thing when looking at headaches, is to understand as much as possible about them. There are different types of headaches, each with different characteristics and causes. The most common type of headache are tension headaches, which effect both males and females. Approximately 80% of adults suffer from this type of headache, which is characterized by pressure across the forehead, and dull, aching pain that radiates along the scalp, down the neck and into the shoulders. These headaches can be caused by stress, muscle tension or injury, posture, jaw dysfunction, depression/anxiety, lack of sleep and lack or type of food.

Migraines differ from tension headaches in that they are more common in females than males, and are characterized by intense, throbbing, pounding pain, sensitivity to light and/or sound, can be accompanied by nausea and/or vomiting and can last from hours to days. Migraines can be caused by stress, hormones, food, vitamin/mineral deficiencies, weather, odors, light, neurological disorders, injury and may even have an unknown cause.

Sinus headaches range from mild to severe in pain, but have very recognizable characteristics. Inflammation in the lining of one (or all eight) cavities of the sinus’ can cause pain that feels deep around the eyes, nose and head that intensifies when the person leans forward.

Cluster headaches, also known as “killer” or “suicide” headaches, are rare, effecting only about 1% of adults, most of which are male between the ages of 20 and 50 years old. These headaches are excruciatingly painful, are localized behind the eye, and last about 30 to 90 minutes but come in “clusters” of between 1 to 12 times in a day. Other types of headaches exist as specific variations of these 4 types of headaches.

Treating Your Headaches Based On Type

Knowing the type and cause of your headaches is important in determining the best course of prevention and treatment specific to you. Keeping a journal of your headaches can help narrow down the type, cause and even the location of the source of the imbalance. And of course, there is an app for that. Migraine Buddy is a highly used and recommended app which can help track possible causes, as well as the details of the headache itself. This information can be shared with your health care team to help form a treatment plan.

You should talk with your doctor about your headaches, your treatment options and management. There are many treatment options available that include prescriptions, manual therapy and preventative measures. They may also refer you to a specialist, such as a neurologist, for more testing and treatment options. A naturopathic doctor is also an important team player in your treatment plan. They can test for causes such as food intolerances, vitamin/mineral deficiencies and hormonal imbalances, and recommend alternative treatments that creates a treatment plan specific to your needs.

Regular visits to manual therapists, such as chiropractors, manual osteopaths, acupuncturists and massage therapists can help treat headaches by correcting posture, relieving muscle tension and decreasing stress. By treating these causes, it may reduce the intensity and/or frequency of headaches, and in some cases, even prevent them. Engaging in yoga on a regular basis has also been proven to treat and prevent headaches by reducing stress, strengthening and stretching muscles causing headaches and improving blood flow. Studies have also shown that essential oils, especially peppermint oil, when massaged into the temples and muscles can help relieve a headache in as little as 15 minutes. Many other measures, such as eating a light meal, hydrating, using cold and heat treatments, taking a relaxing Epsom salt bath, and resting in a quiet, dark place, along with your doctors’ recommendations, may also help relieve your headache.

While headaches may not be completely preventable, there are many treatment options to help manage the suffering. The information available is growing daily with new research. Talk to your health care team to find out more.

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