There's nothing like a headache to spoil what otherwise was shaping up to be a nice day. When a headache hits, most or all conscious thought and action turns to doing what is necessary to get rid of the pain, or at least alleviate the symptoms enough so we can return to functional status. It's best to know how to deal with one before we have to deal with one.
Little research is available to suggest that headaches are more prevalent at any particular time of the year, although it's safe to assume that the holiday season—such as the one we're now in the midst of—holds its own in terms of frequency and/or quantity of headaches. The most common type of such "top-floor pain" is the tension headache, which, just as it sounds, is brought on by stress and tension. You know what they say about the holidays—perhaps the most stressful time of the year even if it's "the most wonderful time of the year."
Many things can cause headaches, and the list includes overuse of medications aimed at treating headaches in the first place. This is what's known in layman's terms as a "rebound headache," in which the remedy used too frequently can cause the headache to return, or bounce back.
Such medication overuse (think aspirin, Tylenol, ibuprofen, etc.) sufferers "are on a merry-go-round, and they can't get off," said Dr. Stewart Tepper, research director at the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute's Center for Headache and Pain, quoted at health.com. "They keep taking more medicine, they keep having more headaches, and so the patient becomes more and more desperate. That's when they end up coming to headache specialists to kind of reset the whole system."
Two theories that address rebound headaches are that medication overuse results in an excited state for the brain, causing more headaches; second, that as the level of medicine goes down in the bloodstream, the resulting withdrawal causes the headache to return. Other types of headaches include cluster, sinus and migraine, with the latter particularly severe as it often is accompanied by symptoms that can include nausea and vomiting.
Following are common triggers of headaches, according to draxe.com:
- Poor posture
- Alcohol or drugs
- Low blood sugar
- Nutritional deficiencies
Treating headaches is not an exact science. It can even get confusing—some experts will suggest a remedy that includes caffeine; others say to avoid caffeine. The application of hot packs have been suggested, as have ice packs. Go figure.
Over-the-counter painkillers such as aspirin or ibuprofen can help mask the symptoms (pain mostly), but the pain of headaches is often a message in which our body is telling us there is another problem: it could be we are dehydrated, suffering from a nutritional deficiency, or just knotted up in stress or excess worry and in need of a cooling-off period.
Whatever the cause, here are some remedies and strategies to help you find relief next time your head starts pounding or pulsating with pain:
- Magnesium is No. 1 on draxe.com's list, but more as a long-term preventative than as an on-the-spot fixer-upper when that tension headache comes knocking. Magnesium is thought to prevent visual and sensory changes common to headaches, especially migraines, while also blocking pain-transmitting brain chemicals.
- Hydration. That's right, drink lots of water—sip it throughout the day. As you probably already know, but a reminder never hurts, coffee, alcohol and sugary drinks have the opposite effect—they dehydrate you, leaving you vulnerable to a headache. Think hangovers.
- Exercise. OK, that's probably the last thing you want to do after the headache hits. But again, we're trying to think ahead here. Exercise can be a great stress reducer, even if it's just a 20-minute walk. Whatever you do, just stretch and move. Yoga is also good; aerobics as well.
- Cayenne. Spice things up a bit with cayenne pepper. Cayenne contains capsaicin, which helps treat pain and inflammation by helping to rid us of substance P, a bodily element that makes us feel pain. Native Americans and the Chinese have long used cayenne for therapeutic purposes.
- Rest and relax. Choose a dark, quiet room, webmd.com says, because "people who have tension headaches may also feel overly sensitive to either light or sound."
- Massage. This doesn't necessarily mean heading to the local spa and forking over a fistful of dollars to a professional masseuse. Find someone to gently massage your head, neck and shoulder muscles—the suggestion here is to make your masseuse your spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend, not your cubicle neighbor at the office Christmas party (that can eventually lead to a much-bigger headache). There are also self-massage techniques you can use.
- Acupressure. Like massage, there are things you can do yourself. Click on this webmd.com link for instructions on how to do this.
- Gluten free diet. Just as it sounds. A sensitivity to gluten can give you a headache when you eat foods containing gluten.
- Herbs. Feverfew and butterbur top the list of tension-easing herbs.
- B-complex vitamins. These are involved in neurotransmitter formation—think serotonin, which might be lacking in migraine sufferers.