All morning, you’ve felt it coming on. You’ve tried to work around it, but gradually that hint of low-level discomfort has increased until you’ve got a splitting headache.
Or do you? Maybe rather than “splitting,” you would describe your headache as “slight but persistent” or “like a band, squeezing.”
Let’s look a little closer: Where do you feel the pain? Is it an all-over ache, or is the pain concentrated in one area? Does the same feeling recur at regular intervals during the day or week, or are your headaches less predictable? Does the pain come with other symptoms such as nausea or watering eyes?
Western medicine distinguishes many different kinds of headaches, but all types tend to be treated in the same ways.
My own method is more closely aligned to the Eastern, whole-body approach. I begin with the assumption that everyone’s headache is actually different. In acupuncture, that means I look at the patient’s pain pattern and select pressure points based on that pattern. For each individual, other personal variables will influence my selections, too.
I definitely don’t dismiss Western medicine, though. I firmly believe achieving optimal wellness means blending the best of both approaches. If you have headaches that are frequent or debilitating, in fact, you should have a thorough medical evaluation. Headache can be a sign of anything from fluctuating hormones to neck or jaw issues, low blood sugar, fatigue…you name it.
Ready to respond to headaches with something other than just another pill? You can, indeed, do many things to relieve the pain. Plus, with careful observation and a little know-how, you may be able to prevent your next headache from even starting.
- The hands-down, number one cause of headaches? Stress!
You’ve heard the term “tension headache”? It’s exactly what it sounds like: an over-packed to-do list, a demanding job, relationship issues, a growing pile of bills… You’ll find limit to the number of nerve-wracking scenarios that can bring on stress. In fact, according to recent research, every 10 percent increase in people’s stress levels causes them to experience tension headaches 6.3 more days per month, and migraines, 4.3 percent more often.
Stress morphs into a headache in several ways. First, when people are under pressure, they often tighten their necks and shoulders. Tense muscles in the back of the neck and the scalp can create the “vice-like” compression many people experience with stress-related headaches. Similarly, clenching the jaws and/or grinding the teeth can trigger headaches.
- How’s your desk posture lately?
Are you one of the legion who work at a desk all day? If you tend to hunch as you work or have a habit of propping a telephone between your head and shoulder hands-free style, you’re perfectly positioned for headaches from stiff muscles in your neck and shoulders.
A related cause of headache is computer use. An improperly positioned monitor can alter your head-neck balance. Furthermore, eyestrain and dryness from prolonged focusing on a lighted screen can present as yet another type of headache.
For these and myriad other reasons, getting up from your desk at regular intervals is best, preferably after no more than 30 minutes of seated, still work. You only need a five-minute break to release your stiff body, refresh your mind, and refocus your energy.
- The season of suffering
Yes, I mean spring…and the allergies that so often come with it. Sinus irritation and congestion often are signaled by symptoms less obvious than sneezing. Here are some clues that your headache could be related to pollen or other seasonal irritants:
- pain focused primarily around your cheeks, forehead, or eyes
- a pattern of stuffiness, mild dizziness, or a watery-feeling of pressure
- a sense of fullness in the ears
And now for the good news: What YOU can do to stop the pain
- Destress, destress, destress.
Even if your headache is initially triggered by something completely different, stress can both worsen and prolong your symptoms.
That’s because the effects of stress quickly compound. For example, tension leads to worry, which leads in turn to sleepless nights—and insomnia is itself a risk factor for headaches and migraines. Stress also triggers inflammation throughout the body, which exacerbates pain that comes from other causes such as neck strain or nasal congestion.
In our modern world, avoiding stress altogether is impossible. But if you learn better techniques for handling stress, you can minimize its effects on your body. Please, make room in your schedule for stress release (and relief!) every single day. Better yet, learn to recognize your own tension signals early and decompress before they coalesce into pain.
One note. If you find that relaxation therapies and cutting down on the stress in your life aren’t making your tension headaches less frequent, consult your doctor. Chronic tension headaches can be indicative of something bigger, such as anxiety or depression.
- Mind your plate.
Many foods are known to fight pain-inducing inflammation as well as boost your body’s resistance to the effects of stress. Look for foods high in potassium, magnesium, and vitamins C and A. Some examples include dark leafy greens, brightly colored produce, sesame seeds, almonds, avocado, fish such as mackerel, white beans, and (oh!) even dark chocolate.
Also, limit your intake of salt, refined sugars, and caffeine, which can be inflammation triggers. Need a hot drink without the caffeine? Try herbal teas. Peppermint and ginger are noted for their calming effect.
- Avoid thirst.
Simple, mild dehydration can cause headaches. And even when a headache is triggered by something other than thirst, a good quenching glass of water may take the edge off the discomfort. Drink up!
- Try alternative therapies.
Massage therapy, guided meditation, and biofeedback all have strong track records for treating headaches, but my personal favorite alternative to pills is acupuncture—of course! As an acupuncturist, not only am I asked by individuals for relief from headaches, but this condition is also the basis of many referrals that come to me from physicians and psychologists.
When you can’t get away but need quick headache relief, I’d like to recommend “acupuncture to go,” my term for self-administered acupressure. Here are two techniques that are easy to learn and use anywhere, any time:
- Place your right thumb on the webbing between your left hand and left thumb. Press inward, toward the hand bone that connects to your index finger. Hold this point for a minute, then repeat on the opposite side, right hand with left thumb.
- Find where your temples curve in slightly on both sides of your face. Place the heels of your hands into these depressions, press inward, and move your heels in a slow circle, breathing deeply while you massage these points.
No doubt, headache is among the most common wellness complaints out there, but I hope you will refuse to give in to the suffering. You have the power to reduce the stresses that so often trigger these painful episodes. Reach out and claim control!
Your Takeaway: Achieving optimal wellness means blending the best of Eastern and Western approaches. If you have headaches that are frequent or debilitating, after a thorough medical evaluation, address or prevent future headaches by adding in alternative techniques