Have you ever had pain in your head? A headache is a common health complaint that can vary in many ways. They can last for minutes to day and be mild and annoying to extremely painful and disabling. The more severe the headache, the more likely additional symptoms will occur. These can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, visual disturbances, concentration difficulties, etc.
What is a Headache?
A headache is when nociceptors, pain-sensing nerve endings, of the trigeminal nerve are stimulated. The trigeminal nerve is one of the twelve cranial nerves which directly connect to the brain. It sends sensory information (touch, pain, temperature, and vibration input) in the head and neck to the thalamus. The thalamus is the sensory relay station of the entire body. Depending on the severity of the headache, other parts of the brain may get involved and cause other symptoms just as nausea or vomiting.
Headaches can vary in intensity and duration. Some people may get a headache once or twice a year, while others can have a headache fifteen days or more every month. The pain can last for minutes to hours or days in severe cases and can vary in pain level. It can feel dull, achy, throbby, stabby, pulsing, or like an incredible pressure inside your head. The pain can be in a small localized location, or it could involve the entire head.
Anyone at any age can experience a headache, but women are three times more likely to experience a migraine. Certain headaches also seem to have a hereditary component as they can be passed down through families.
Causes of Headaches
There are many causes of headaches. One of the most common causes involves stress. Mental or emotional concerns can trigger headaches. Stress and tension in the body can also cause pain which can lead to a headache. Headaches can also be caused by ingesting certain foods, smelling specific scents, not eating regularly, or being dehydrated. Alcohol, especially red wine, smoking, and a lack of sleep can also lead to head pain.
Additionally, medical conditions can be a cause of headaches. Sleep apnea has been shown to be a cause of repeated morning headaches. Arthritis in the neck or temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction or old musculoskeletal injuries from sporting or car accidents can also be contributors. Brain tumors, stroke, and withdrawal from addictive studies can also cause headaches.
Types of Headaches
There are several different types of headaches, and the most common is tension-type headaches.
- Migraine – these are typically recurring attacks of moderate to severe pain which may be pulsing or throbbing on one side of the head. Untreated attacks can last from 4 – 72 hours, and symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, visual disturbances, and increased sensitivity to light, noise, and odors.
- Tension-type headaches – These are the most common, and they can occur for ten or more days in a month.
- Trigeminal autonomic cephalgias (including cluster headache) – these headaches are generally on one side of the face with severe pain in or around the eye. Other symptoms can be a red and teary eye, drooping eyelid, and runny nose. Headaches can differ in duration and frequency which can occur daily for weeks, or be pain-free for months. Cluster headaches fall under this category and, though painful, are generally less.
- Miscellaneous primary headache – This type includes headaches not included in the previous categories. Chronic daily headaches, “brain freeze” headaches from cold foods, and more fall under this.
Natural Therapy Options
Avoid triggers. If you’ve had headaches before, you may be able to identify certain triggers. Food ingredients like monosodium glutamate (MSG), chocolate, some cheeses, yeast, processed meats, some fruits, etc., may trigger a headache in some people. Prevention can be as simple as avoiding these foods. When dietary adjustments aren’t enough, there are other things you can consider.
Prevention. Research shows there are several nutrients that can be added to help prevent headaches and migraines. Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) is used in cellular energy production and can help support energy stores in the body. Magnesium is involved in over 300 chemical reactions.Regarding headaches, it helps balance nerve signaling. It can also help relax muscles, including vascular tone, which is helpful. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is also critical for energy production in the cells, and it is an antioxidant that can decrease the inflammatory part of headaches.
Botanical Therapies. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is often thought of when considering natural therapies to help with headaches. In studies, feverfew has been shown to reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches when taken daily. Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) is an anti-inflammatory herb shown to help reduce headache frequency and symptoms. Butterbur must be specially processed to remove pyrrolizidine alkaloids in it which can be dangerous when ingested. Another herb to consider is curcumin, a polyphenol isolated from Curcuma longa (turmeric). When paired with omega-3s or CoQ10, it has been shown to be more effective than when taken alone.
Stress Management. Stress is a primary cause of headaches, and there are many ways to help lower stress in today’s fast-paced world. Exercise is one way to do this. Yoga has been shown to be helpful in reducing headache frequency and intensity. Taking time to breathe deeply for five to ten minutes a few times a day can also be helpful. One technique called progressive muscle relaxation can be used specifically for headache prevention. It involved progressively and slowly contracting and relaxing muscles body region by body region.
Soft Tissue Therapies. Getting some body work done can also help relieve muscle stress and tension which can trigger a headache. Massage especially can also help reduce stress. Chiropractic care can also be helpful by aligning the skeleton which can help relieve tension in the body’s tissues. Last but not least, acupuncture can also help prevent and treat headaches.
To Wrap It All Up…
Please note if you ever experience a headache that you would classify as “the worst headache of your life”, head to the emergency room immediately. Generally referred to as a thunderclap headache, this can be a sign of a life-threatening condition. A severe headache with neck stiffness also requires medical attention. Finally, if you experience a headache that occurs after a head injury or also have a rash, fever, or sleepiness accompanying your pain, you should seek medical attention right away.
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- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. N.D. “Headache.” Retrieved May 19, 2023. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/headache
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