This week I thought it might be useful to look at a common condition which responds well to a functional medicine or holistic approach….headaches…. that everyday problem which can be so debilitating. It’s common to think of just taking paracetamol or anti-inflammatory, and sometimes we forget to ask why it may have happened.
Headaches are a symptom of a problem and I like to put my detective hat on and think about why it might have started, and what might stop it happening again. Overuse of painkillers can cause headaches themselves, not to mention other potential side effects, like liver and kidney damage, or digestive problems, so they are really best avoided if possible.
Please remember that if your headaches are severe, or of new onset you do need to see your doctor to ensure there is not a more serious underlying problem. Please ensure you get medical attention if you have any of the following:
- Onset of headaches is at age 50 years or over
- Thunderclap headache – sudden onset of severe headache
- Neurological symptoms or signs – tingling, pins and needles, visual changes
- Red eye and haloes around lights
- Tenderness on the side of the scalp when brushing hair
- Worsening headache on laying down
- Headache associated with neck stiffness and aversion to light
One of the most common causes of headaches I see in clinic is muscular or myofascial tension. This is usually linked to chronic posture problems, tension in the neck or shoulders, injury or stress. Classically the pain will often start in the neck and move over the head, settling behind the eye or in the forehead. I find there are many options which can help, and I often recommend starting with massages.
I love lava shell or thai compress massage for this as the heat can really help to dissolve any muscular tension or myofascial trigger points. Bowen therapy is often also very effective, and works on a deep level to release the fascia. Other great body work options are acupuncture, chiropractor or osteopathy; and combining this with assessing your posture, work environment/ desk or activities that you are doing will ensure the problem is not being constantly reactivated.
In addition, I often recommend magnesium citrate or glycinate supplements which are fantastic muscle relaxants and will also help to reduce stress and anxiety in the body. I generally recommend 300-450mg before bed.
Some people get headaches every time they eat a certain food. Certain chemicals in food can trigger headaches, such as tyramine, sulphites, glutamine (MSG), and aspartame. A nutritionist can help with following a headache elimination diet. This reduces certain food groups and then reintroduces them to see if they are triggers. Gradually you can slowly start eating these foods again, adding one group at a time and then see if the headaches return.
Other common reasons for headaches can be dehydration, hormonal imbalance, blood sugar imbalance, fatigue and stress. Looking into these factors, it is often worth doing a headache diary to plot the frequency and what you were doing or eating at the time, and if there is a monthly cycle for women. This can help your practitioner or doctor to pinpoint the cause.
Reducing stress is also a universally helpful strategy and for this yoga can be a real win-win – helping with posture and stress reduction. Other options to consider are mindfulness, meditation and deep breathing exercises.