Headaches are so common we tend to dismiss them as an annoyance, rather than a condition that needs serious treatment. However, a headache, like any pain, is the body’s way of telling you something’s wrong. Another myth is that a headache is a disease. It is not. A headache is a symptom of a larger problem, one that you need to investigate.
Let’s explore some types of headaches, their causes and when you should be alarmed. Let’s also look at the many natural alternatives to aspirin and other medication for treating this commonplace, but not necessarily benign pain.
So Many Headaches
The cause of headaches is vast. Daily tension explains most aching temples. But infections like the flu, brain tumors, head injuries, sun exposure, high blood pressure or conditions of the ears, throat, eyes, nose or teeth can also lead to headaches. Sometimes taking a medication, particularly birth control pills, can make your head ache. If this (or any other unusual symptoms) occurs, call your doctor or pharmacist.
You may suffer from cluster headaches. These vascular headaches tend to be intense and one-sided. They usually begin during sleep and causes the affected eye to redden and water, while the nostril drops.
Many women are afflicted with menstrual headaches each month, sometimes migraines and often premenstrual. The homeopathic remedy Pulsatilla may help if the pain moves around, accompanies nausea, vomiting and other digestive discomforts, feels better with pressure and you feel weepy yet desire company. The best way to eliminate PMS-headaches is by treating the PMS. Often these headaches accompany food cravings, fatigue, and dizziness. General PMS therapies like avoiding alcohol and stabilizing blood sugar may also help (The Journal of Reproductive Medicine, 1987, vol 32.)
Hunger or low blood sugar also sparks headaches and can include irritability, sweating, dizziness, nausea and confusion. If you suspect your headaches are due to hypoglycemia or irregular eating habits, frequent small meals high in complex carbohydrates and protein should bring relief. Cut out sugary foods, caffeine and alcohol.
Some living situations can directly cause headaches. Sudden headaches that occur after the first cold snap may indicate poisoning from a leaky gas furnace. Pollution sickens some people. Constipation, another headache trigger, often resolves with a high-fiber, low-fat diet and managed stress. In the meantime, peppermint tea with its anti-gas, nerve-calming, spasm-relaxing, anti-nausea, pain-relieving actions calms most digestive headaches.
Food (and other) allergies may promote headaches. A poor diet brimming with salt, sugar and fat increases physical stress which can in turn elicit a tension headache. Caffeine drinkers, for instance, tend to have more headaches than non-users (International Journal of Epidemiology, 1985, vol 14.) Yet caffeine has a paradoxical effect. Trying to kick the habit, usually leads to caffeine-withdrawal headaches.
Physical problems, like poor posture, can cause headaches. Throbbing linked with eye pain could point to new or different glasses. Headache and jaw pain could be TMJ; visit a dentist acquainted with this problem.
Most common is the muscular contraction or tension headache. It begins as a dull, steady ache at the back of your head, moving across the forehead to the temples. Very tight muscles feel like a band squeezing your head. Neck, scalp or shoulder muscles are tender, even excruciating.
Any number of stressors can set off a tension headache: emotional strain, overwork–mental or physical, extreme temperatures, lack of sleep, irregular eating habits, anything that taxes your body.
Sometimes a tension headache is your body’s way of preparing for a fight. Your body perceives conflict the same, whether it’s struggling with a grizzly bear or a traffic jam. Your heart and mind race, senses sharpen and muscles tense. Continual challenges without physical release cause muscles to become progressively tighter like a vise increasing its grip. Finally overworked upper body muscles culminate into a tension headache.
Because of stress’s deleterious effect on overall health, it’s vital to control your tension headaches by digging to the root of the problem. Take breaks throughout the work day. If you have a sedentary job, use stretches to release constricted muscles. Go for a walk during your lunch hour. Trade neck and shoulder massages with a coworker, friend or family member. Or take advantage of the many mini-massage services springing up that offer 10 to 15 minute upper body rubs. During unavoidable frustrations like commuting, distract yourself with music, talking books or educational tapes.
Ready your body for battle by keeping it healthy. Sip water, not coffee or pop, throughout the day. Replace quick pick-me-up sweet snacks with sustained energy foods like fruit or bran muffins. Do spot checks on your environment. Are your clothes or shoes too tight? How’s your posture? Do you live or work in a place that’s too noisy, cold, hot, bright, dark?
If these preventative measures don’t eliminate your tension headache, there are several natural therapies at your disposal. Try an ice pack on your head and put your feet in a tub of hot water (professional experience). Even a quiet hot bath can be soothing.
A plant associated more with grandmothers than headaches is lavender, or Lavendula officinalis. This fragrant herb with delicate purple flowers is effective for a number of conditions including stress headaches. Its sedative and antispasmodic properties relieve the exhausted, tranquilize the sleepless and soothe the aching. An infusion can be drunk, together with valerian or lady’s slipper, or lavender oil rubbed into throbbing temples (don’t ingest the oil). Or if you wish, burn a lavender scented candle or keep a sachet nearby to minimize stress.
Chamomile or any other sedative herbs also help a tension headache. In a pinch, look to your kitchen cupboard for a solution. Marjoram drunk as a tea, or as an oil rubbed onto tense muscles, may also ease your headache.
The homeopathic remedy, Gelsemium, is particularly suited to stress headaches when it feels like a tight band is crushing your head. This remedy works best with right-sided pain and those who feel tired, dull and solitude. If your headache gets worse with motion, noise or light and feels better after urinating or napping, then Gelsemium may help.
The Dreaded Migraine
Next to the stress headache, a migraine is probably the best known and most dreaded headache. Many people equate a migraine with a very bad headache, but it’s more than that. This very complex and slow developing headache still confuses scientists. Causes are speculated to be vascular, biochemical, neurological or something else.
They tend to recur anywhere from everyday to a couple times a year, and last for hours or days. Half or more of migraines are genetic, and most victims start having these headaches before 30 years old. Even symptoms between individuals vary greatly.
The vascular theory says migraines begin when cranial blood vessels constrict. This event causes the warning signs of a migraine such as the classic “aura” or visual changes like dimness and flashing lights. Sometimes a migraine sufferer also feels weak, numb, dizzy, depressed, restless. They may slur their speech or crave sweets.
As these symptoms dissipate, pain takes over, presumably due to dilating vessels. Depending on the person, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, chills and light sensitivity accompany the pain. Many migraine sufferers are incapacitated and seek the solace of a dark, quiet room.
Like tension headaches, stress can bring on a migraine. For some, the letdown after a stressful period like the weekend, may cause a migraine. Hormonal changes such as menstruation, ovulation and birth control pills prompt migraines in some women. Pregnancy and menopause alleviates this condition in many. This might explain why women are struck with migraines more often than men.
Many of the situations that provoke general headaches, also spark migraines in susceptible people. Hunger, cold food or drink, too much or too little sleep, other bodily pain, smells, light, noise or extreme temperature changes, stress, allergies, alcohol (especially red wine) and cigarette smoke are common triggers. Donald Johns, MD from Massachusetts General Hospital reported that the artificial sweetener, aspartame, initiated migraines in one of his patients (The New England Journal of Medicine, 1986, vol 315).
Certain foods like nuts, coffee, citrus fruits, cured meats, shellfish, chocolate and cheese initiate migraines in some people (although some of these foods may be a craving not the cause.) (The Lancet, 1992, vol 339). Foods containing MSG and nitrates are also possible migraine-promoters. It’s possible, particularly in children, that food allergies bring on migraines (The Lancet, 1983, no. 8355). Many naturopathic physicians use food allergy testing as the main focus of migraine treatment.
Based on the idea that blood components called platelets become more sticky during migraines, some doctors recommend vegetable oils and fish instead of meat and dairy. Garlic and onions are also suggested.
Another preventative step is feverfew, or Tanacetum parthenium. J.J. Murphy and his colleagues at the Queen’s Medical Center in Nottingham, England discovered patients taking feverfew everyday for four months had fewer and milder migraines, as well as less vomiting and visual disturbances (The Lancet, 1988, July 23).
While avoiding migraines through food selection, regular meals, controlled stress, a comfortable environment and possibly taking feverfew is best, what do you do if one strikes? There are several herbs and homeopathic remedies that may, at the very least, take the edge off your pain.
For migraines with nausea and other stomach complaints, chamomile and hops are suitable. Warning, don’t take hops if you’re severely depressed. If stress factors into your migraine, try one of the sedative herbs like oats or skullcap.
If your migraines are preceded by visual disturbances like dimness, the homeopathic remedy Gelsemium may work. On the other hand, if your migraine is right-sided, worse in the morning, recurs, and includes nausea and vomiting as well as prodromal blurring, then Iris versicolor could be the answer.
Headaches aren’t normal, nor should they be ignored. Like any health problem, headache treatment should begin by exploring its source. A headache diary complete with foods eaten, exercise, medications taken (including vitamins and herbs), sleeping habits, temperature, stress, feelings and any other environmental factors help you pinpoint the cause. Do your headaches occur after reading, on the weekend, after visiting friends or only certain times a month? Do you have other symptoms that might indicate an infection?
If your headache has come on recently, is accompanied by other symptoms like a stiff neck, fever, vomiting, dizziness or loss of hearing, includes pain in a specific area of the head like the jaw or behind the eyes, or appears after an accident (especially head injury) visit your doctor. Frequent or prolonged headaches also need attention.
Taking Care of Headache Pain
If while digging for the root cause to your headaches, you get a headache, one of the following natural pain killers might help.
Black Willow: This plant contains aspirin-like compounds. Like aspirin it’s good for pain, inflammation and fever
Cayenne: This member of the hot pepper family has traditionally been used to control pain. It does this by depleting substance P in your sensory nerves
Passion Flower: The combination of spasm relieving, sedative and pain reducing qualities of this herb make it help for headaches, especially due to stress
Homeopathic remedies taken acutely for mild to moderate pain are a temporary cure. They safely eliminate pain, but don’t solve the long-term problem. Change remedies if your symptoms change. If you have a hard time choosing a remedy, use the most prominent symptoms as your guide. If you’re currently under homeopathic care, consult with your practitioner before taking any other remedy.
Belladonna: Favored in fever headaches, this remedy suits pain that begins suddenly, is severe and throbbing, and feels better sitting. Cold feet and hands, a hot face, and sensitivity to smell, noise, touch, light or movement point to Belladonna.
Bryonia: If slight movement makes your head pound noticeably more, then Bryonia may help. The steady ache and fullness of this headache often appears upon waking. Nausea, vomiting, constipation, irritability, left eye pain and a desire to be alone are typical of Bryonia.
Nux vomica: Think of a hangover for this remedy. Anytime your headache begins because of too much alcohol, coffee, drugs, work or food, Nux vomica may help. This headache includes a general ill feeling with various digestive complaints. Warmth feel good, sound, motion and lying on the painful side hurt.