Oh, My Aching Head

Headaches are highly individual but call for a holistic approach to wellness
By naturopath Jeremy Hill NDAdv, HMAdv, NutAdv

Headache pain is often described vividly by sufferers as feeling like their brain is going to explode. The reality is that the brain's nerves don't have any receptors for pain. The pain is actually arising from disturbances in the membranes, muscles and vascular tissues around the face, head and neck areas. A simple sore throat can be enough to trigger a headache.

There are many types of headaches, but the most common type, tension headache, affects approximately seven million Australians regularly. A diagnosis of tension headache is usually given once all other forms of headache have been successfully excluded. Sitting hunched over the computer too long, watching TV with bad posture, or a strenuous workout at the gym can all be enough to set off a tension headache.

Headaches from muscle tightness may result from overtraining or poor posture, but it may also indicate that you are deficient in essential nutrients such as magnesium which helps keep muscles relaxed, or that you are fighting a common viral infection.

Insomnia, hypertension and hypothyroidism, caffeine withdrawal and caffeine excess, heavy metal poisoning and a jolt to the head during sport are just a few of the causes for headaches to develop.

A little stress is helpful in keeping us on our toes and productive, while too much stress can set off all sorts of health problems, including migraines and headaches. Finding ways to relax will often work wonders for tension headache sufferers. For some sufferers, simply falling asleep is the simplest and most effective cure - just drifting off and waking refreshed a few hours later, although this is certainly not the most convenient method if you are at school or work.

Many people seek drug-based relief from headache and migraine with aspirin and paracetamol, although with each drug having a level of side effects and risk to consider, many people are opting for natural alternatives. Interestingly, some research has found a not insignificant percentage of headache sufferers is triggering the problem by misusing their headache-relief medications.

Sensitivities and allergies can also be a trigger, with exposure to certain foods or chemicals like a perfume being enough to set off hours of pain. Restricting exposure to certain common chemicals can be the solution for some people, while actively lowering the body's toxic burden and enhancing the health of the eliminatory organs through detoxification is beneficial for others. Undertaking an elimination diet and rechallenge with foods such as milk, wheat, eggs, yeast, red wine, chocolate and oranges often proves extremely helpful, although the list of reactive foods can vary significantly between sufferers.

Treatment of headaches and migraines should always involve investigating for causative factors so that imbalances may be corrected. This may include assessing for signs of systemic or localised inflammation, or imbalances in the metabolism of the female sex hormone oestrogen, which may be the reason a lot more women suffer migraines and headaches than men. It's also helpful to examine for trigger points or tightness in the temporomandibula joint or the large band-like sternocleidomastoid muscle running from the sternum and clavicle to the knobbly bit of the skull behind the ear. The potential for referred pain to be triggered in one area, such as a neck muscle, and felt in the head can make headaches particularly tricky to trace.

Headaches can sometimes be a warning of something far more severe. Each year, hundreds of people in Australia develop the potentially deadly meningococcal disease from the nose and throat-dwelling bacteria Neisseria meningitides. This condition can initially express with severe headache as one of its symptoms. Other symptoms include a stiff neck, muscle and joint pain, a rash which initially presents as little reddish/purple spots, extreme fatigue and light sensitive eyes. This bacteria is carried by a significant portion of the Australian population but, when newly contracted, an infection can occur and the condition can progress quickly and rapid medical assistance is necessary.

A long term recurrent headache with increasing severity is also worth discussing with your doctor to rule out the possibility of a brain tumour.

Because of the diverse array of factors involved in triggering headaches and migraines there is no single remedy or approach that suits everyone.

Naturopathy has much to offer the headache and migraine sufferer, ranging from stress reducing herbs, to muscle relaxing mineral and amino acid blends, and safe and effective inflammation control. But taking a holistic approach to wellness is always our priority. I am frequently told in consultation "and my headaches have gone too" by people who came to see me for more severe problems and have found that their improved state of wellness is having unanticipated benefits. As such, focusing upon wellness while investigating or managing the initial trigger, should always be an essential part of naturopathic treatment for headaches and migraines.

Good health,