According to the American Headache Society, 90 percent of people have at least one headache per year. With $1 billion dollars spent annually on over-the-counter headache medications, it’s clearly a big, throbbing problem. But simply popping a painkiller isn’t always so simple, particularly when weighing the possible side effects, which include gastrointestinal upset, kidney and liver damage and rebound headaches (head-aches caused by overuse of headache medications). Triptans and beta blockers, commonly prescribed drugs for migraines, can cause fatigue, dizziness and cloudy thinking.
Types of Headaches
Headaches fall into three general categories: tension-type, cluster and mi-graine. Tension-type are the most common and create a pressure pain. Cluster headaches are very rare and feature a stabbing pain in or around the eyes. Migraines are characterized by pounding, debilitating pain accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. Migraines are thought to be neurological in nature. The brain stem loses its ability to control constriction of the nerve pathways responsible for opening the arteries to the brain, according to Dr. Robert Zembroski, a board-certified chiropractic neurologist and director of the Darien Center for Integrative Medicine in Darien, Con-necticut. “As the pathways fatigue, there is massive dilation, resulting in the pounding sensation of blood flowing into the brain,” he says.
A Holistic Approach
Drug side effects aside, headache sufferers may also wish to seek alternative, nonpharmacological treatment in order to address the underlying cause of their pain, not just treat the symptoms.
Dr. Stewart J. Tepper, the director of research at the Center for Headache and Pain, Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute in Ohio, points to several non-drug-related, self-care actions: “Regular and sufficient sleep, relaxation and mind-body therapies and aerobic exercise are very helpful in migraine prevention.” He says eating a balanced diet and not skipping meals is more important than eliminating or adding certain foods to one’s diet, but notes that foods containing a high level of tyramine (such as aged cheeses, chocolate and alcohol) should be avoided.
Caffeine should also be eliminated, not only because virtually everyone who regularly consumes caffeine experiences withdrawal headaches when it is discontinued, but also because it seems to render other migraine-prevention regimes less effective. Tepper also says to drink plenty of water: “In a 2005 study, 34 out of 95 people reported perceived dehydration as a trigger for their migraines.”
Alternative approaches that look to cure the underlying causes of chronic headaches include acupuncture, biofeed-back and chiropractic manipulation.
According to Eileen Karn, L.Ac. Dipl. CH., director of the Meridian Wellness Center in Stamford, Connecticut, “In natural medicine we think of mi-graines as disregulation. There is almost always a food allergy or intolerance involved, or a hormonal imbalance,” she says. Stress headaches often get remarkable results with acupuncture alone; migraine and menstrual headaches benefit from combining Chinese herbs with acupuncture.
Karn also suggests acupressure points one can practice on their own. Heku is the point in the webbing between the thumb and index finger. Pressing this is very helpful for alleviating everything from dentistry to shoulder pain. For nausea associated with migraine there is neiguan, on the inner wrist.
Biofeedback teaches people to consciously change bodily functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. The U.S. Headache Con-sortium reports that 10 studies assessing the benefits of thermal biofeedback in combination with relaxation training for migraine found a mean average improvement of 33 percent. Five studies of EMG biofeedback were analyzed, revealing a weighted average of 40 percent improvement.
This area of chiropractic medicine uses specific adjustments, alongside nutritional support, to address and correct neurological weaknesses. According to Dr. Zembroski, “In chiropractic neurology, we have an ability to understand where the nerve pathways are dysfunctional and how to use manipulation to correct this dysfunction.”
In terms of nutrition, “We aim to support the digestive system, because malabsorption of nutrients can lead to inflammation, which decreases the body’s pain-mediating chemicals,” says Zembroski. He advocates a diet free of the six major foods that cause inflammation— dairy, soy, gluten, oats, barley and rye.
In terms of herbal, vitamin or mineral treatments, Tepper notes several that have performed well in randomized controlled studies. The herb butterbur has proven safe and effective for people who don’t experience its one often-noted side effect—burping. An article in Current Vascular Pharmacology cited a 12-week trial in which use of butterbur cut the number of migraines by more than half in 45 percent of those who took the herb. Tepper recommends CO Q10, particularly if one is on a statin drug. Vitamin B12, or riboflavin, can be useful. Magnesium can be used not only preventatively but also acutely: if administered intravenously it can terminate an attack.
“People do not have to suffer or get dependent upon medication,” says Karn. “The headache can be a real symptom of a very stressful existence that needs to be looked at and corrected, rather than medicated.”