Migraine and Headache
Headaches come in all shapes and sizes – from pounding hangovers or flu’s cotton wool stuffiness, to the spreading pain of tension or incapacitating migraines. If you look up synonyms for the word headache, you’ll find words such as ‘annoyance’, ‘bother’ and ‘nuisance’ – but not everyone reduces this potentially debilitating condition to a mere irritation. The World Health Organization believes the problem of headaches is so big that they created a world atlas of headache disorders, trying to establish why it’s such a prevalent issue and what to do about it. The foreword to their report says this, “Headache disorders are among the most common disorders of the nervous system, causing substantial ill-health and disability in populations throughout the world. Despite this, they are underestimated in scope and scale, and there is little recognition of their public-health impact. It is not known how, or how effectively, healthcare and other resources are utilized to mitigate their effects.”
Because not all headaches are created equal, some can be dealt with easily while others require substantial lifestyle changes and even prescribed medication. Headaches can be separated into two broad categories: primary or secondary. The most common type is primary – that means they are their own disorder, not caused by any other health problem. Secondary headaches are a symptom of another issue – from hay fever to a brain tumour. Basically, they aren’t the disease or disorder, but occur as a result of something else. But that’s not to say these types of headaches aren’t important – they can be your cue to seeking help for what could be a life-threatening condition.
The world average for this type of headache is 42% of adults. There are three types of tension headache:
- Episodic occur less than once a month and are usually triggered by temporary anxiety, stress, anger or fatigue. Relief is often found in taking an over-the-counter pain killer, a bit of rest, or relief from the source of stress
- Frequent occur between one and 15 days of the month and are often accompanied by a migraine. People experiencing frequent tension headaches are in danger of overusing pain killers, which can cause rebound headaches - where pain medication not only ceases to block pain, but can actually begin to cause headaches
- Chronic tension headaches occur on more than 15 days a month and are often continuous, sometimes daily. This type is usually related to depression or other emotional issues and the most common treatment is the prescription of antidepressants, which also have an analgesic action. Biofeedback, which is a method of monitoring and thereby teaching you to control specific muscles to ensure targeted relaxation, has also shown promise as an effective treatment.
According to the World Health Organization, migraine affects 11% of the world’s population. Migraine is a complicated type of headache, with sufferers (mostly women) experiencing throbbing pain, nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. Some sufferers also experience an aura, which manifests as flashes of light, blind spots, shimmering lights, zigzag lines or numbness, or tingling in the arm and face before the pain symptoms begin.
Migraine is individualised, with sufferers experiencing headaches that last anywhere between four to 72 hours, as well as a pre- and post-headache phase associated with mood swings, tiredness and muscle tenderness.
There’s a distinct link between hormonal changes and migraine, with many women experiencing menstrual migraines that occur before or during menstruation. Some women experience migraine when they ovulate – all this points to fluctuating estrogen levels being a trigger. Migraines are also believed to be genetic, with as much as 75% risk of being a migraine sufferer if both your parents experience them. Other factors include diet, emotional state, physical activity, environment (strong smells, loud noise, change in weather, etc), or medications.
Treatment needs to be holistic, addressing lifestyle changes to avoid known triggers (each person has individual triggers but common ones are caffeine and alcohol), reducing stress with relaxation techniques, exercising and eating a balanced diet, ensuring good sleep patterns and recognising the onset of an attack in order to lessen its effect. The key is to try to avoid or prevent attacks occurring.
Medications developed to treat epilepsy, depression or high blood pressure have been shown to be effective in reducing the number and severity of migraine attacks in sufferers. Additionally, Botox has also been used effectively to stave off attacks. If the major trigger is hormonal, then hormone balancing will be an effective preventative measure. Once again, biofeedback is useful for prevention.
If all the preventative measures fail, being able to lie down in a quiet, dark space can lessen the severity or stop the attack, provided you shut out all sensory stimulation and rest as soon as you feel the migraine forming. Alternatively, analgesics or specific migraine pain medication may be required. Long thought to be caused by the constriction of blood vessels in the brain, new research has uncovered that it’s more likely to be a neurological root than a vascular one. In particular, scientists are looking at a peptide released by the neurons in the brain before and during a migraine, called calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), and how to block its effects. Developments in medication based on this theory may well provide a more effective pain management.
The least common primary type and more prevalent in men than women, cluster headaches are more baffling to researchers than migraines in terms of their cause. It’s hypothesised that an abnormality in the brain’s hypothalamus, which controls your circadian rhythms, may be the root. Sudden in onset, cluster headaches occur in a series, over a period of weeks or months, and then simply stop for a period of time. During a series, sufferers can experience waves of attacks up to four times a day, usually the same time each day or night.
Sometimes misdiagnosed as allergic or histamine reactions, cluster headaches generally occur during spring or autumn and cause nasal stuffiness and teary eyes (symptoms usually only occur on one side of the head, affecting only one nostril or one eye). The pain will remain on the same side during the series of attacks, but may switch to the other side when the next series occurs. Because of the rapid and somewhat random onset of these types of headaches, treatment or prevention isn’t very easy at all. Some sufferers have found relief from using a facial mask oxygen inhaler.
Whatever type of headache you experience, don’t fob it off as a mere annoyance, especially if your headache lingers for a few days or recurs regularly. You may not be able to find a cure for it, but at least you can identify the type of headache you are suffering from so you can be more aware of how to avoid the specific triggers that cause your individualised pain.
PLEASE NOTE: Products are ranked in decreasing order of potency. Products listed nearer the top of any particular health need are the most effective and have the most scientific research to support their use in respect of such health need. Multiple products, one from each bullet (•) can be combined with products from other bullets for added effectiveness, if needed, since products from different bulleted lines have different mechanisms of action. However, where more than one product is listed within a particular bullet (•), then only one of these products should be used, since all products listed within the same bullet share an identical or similar pharmacology (mechanism of action) for that condition. This is because whenever a particular condition is treated via multiple different mechanisms of action, the result is generally improved effectiveness. However, when products are combined that work via exactly the same mechanism of action, then no extra benefit is obtained.