Over 39 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches or migraines. From tension to sinus and migraines there are many different kinds of headaches and over 150 diagnostic criteria have been established to categorize the array of headache types.
Migraines & Headaches Symptoms
Migraines and tension headaches are the two most prevalent kinds of headaches with symptoms that range from mild to debilitating. The symptoms of migraines include insensitivity to light, noise or smells, appetite loss, or nausea. Some individuals experience warning symptoms of an impending migraine attack such as seeing an aura or halo around their field of vision or feeling a tingling sensation in their limbs. A migraine headache can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days with its intensity spanning from moderate to extreme.
Tension headaches are characterized by constant throbbing or contractions on the front, side or top of the head. Other symptoms of tension headaches are a mild sensitivity to light, difficulty sleeping and altered concentration. Symptoms are usually mild to moderate and last for the duration of the headache.
Migraines & Headaches Causes
What Causes Headaches?
There are numerous causes of headaches that can range from triggers from the foods we eat to muscular contractions in the head. It is believed that the main cause of tension headaches occurs when with the muscles surrounding the skull, face and neck go into spasm. As they contract, they bring about pain and the symptoms associated with tension headaches. The spasms may occur in response to a significant amount of physical or mental stress such as engaging in repetitive or prolonged tasks or being under stress for an extended period of time.
Migraines on the other hand are vascular headaches caused by an enlargement of the temporal artery, a kind of blood vessels that is located along the temple. As the blood vessels dilate, they cause certain chemicals that surround the vessels to be released. These chemicals in turn bring about inflammation, pain and the additional symptoms of a migraine headache.
There are a variety of biological and environmental risk factors for developing chronic headaches. Migraines affect women more than and they typically occur in those who are 40 years of age or younger. Having a family history of migraines and hormonal changes, more notably in women, are also predisposing risk factors. Birth control pills and other medications that contain estrogen are additional risk factors as are changes in weather Tension headaches also appear to affect more women than men and are more common among those who are around the age of 40.
Migraines & Headaches Treatment
Both conventional and alternative forms of treatment are regularly used to control, manage and prevent the symptoms associated with headaches and migraines.
Since the migraine headache affects the sympathetic nervous system which controls metabolic processes such as absorption of pills, most over-the-counter medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are ineffective at treating the pain of migraines. There are specific medications that address the unique symptoms and causes of migraines. Such medications either fall into the pain-relieving or migraine-prevention categories. Since migraine attacks are often coupled with nausea, an anti-nausea medication is often prescribed in combination with the migraine medication.
The primary migraine medications are as follows:
- Pain-Relieving: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as over-the-counter acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen work to temporarily reduce the pain associated with migraines. But taken for extended periods of time, these medications can cause organ damage and gastrointestinal side effects.
- Triptans: This class of prescribed drugs addresses the symptoms associated with migraines such as nausea, light and sound sensitivity and pain. While not a prevention drug, triptans work by activating serontonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter and reduce inflammation in the cranial blood vessels. Common triptans include sumatriptan (Imitrex), almotriptan (Axert), eletriptan (Relpaz) and rizatriptan (Maxalt).
- Beta Blockers: Used as a preventive measure against migraine attacks, beta blockers, which are also used to treat hypertension and coronary artery disease, can be helpful in reducing the onset of an attack and its intensity.
- Calcium Blockers: Another kind of cardiovascular drug, calcium blockers like verapamil can also prevent migraines. Antidepressants: Tricylic antidepressants like amitriptyline (Pamelor) and protriptyline (Vivactil) affect the amount of serotonin in the brain and are often prescribed as a way to prevent migraines.
- Anti-Seizure medications: Drugs like divalproex (Depakote) and topiramate (Topamax), and gabapentin (Neurontin) are prescribed in low doses to prevent on the onset of migraines.
When it comes to tension and other kinds of headaches, NSAIDs are the most common forms of treatment. But since gastrointestinal side-effects accompany prolonged use of NSAIDs, it is necessary to work with a medical doctor for chronic headaches in order to develop an effective and safe treatment plan.
Alternative Headache Medicine
Alternative treatments for headaches and migraines include acupuncture, biofeedback, and massage therapy.
Many studies have shown the effectiveness of acupuncture may help to prevent migraines in addition to improving the degree of perceived pain in headache sufferers. The exact mechanism for how this ancient Chinese therapy provides relief from migraines is not yet known.
Biofeedback which is a process that teaches the individual how to control and regulate bodily functions such as heart rate and muscle tension in response to pain is also a popular drug-less therapy for those suffering from migraines. For instance, biofeedback is used in offering relief from cold or tingling hands a common symptom of migraines by redirecting the blood flow from the brain to their hands with or without the use of biofeedback electronic equipment.
Massage therapy can relieve the pain associated with headaches by relaxing tension in the neck, shoulders and face, relieving muscles spasms and improving blood flow. While there are numerous styles of massage, trigger point therapy and Shiatsu are two of the most popular for effectively treating headaches.
Migraines & Headaches Prevention
Preventing headaches and migraines involves incorporating a variety of lifestyle factors that can reduce risk of an attack.
In both headaches and migraines, maintaining a regular exercise routine is key as exercise has been known to boost circulation, release natural feel-good endorphins in the body and reduce stress. Biofeedback training which teaches the headache sufferer ways to control their reaction to pain can be a formative technique for preventing a full-blown headache as soon as the early warning signs of an attack are felt.
Migraines have been linked certain additives in foods or smells. Therefore it is important to identify food or smell triggers in your diet and avoid them. Foods like caffeine, fermented foods, MSG, nitrates, nitrites, yeast and aged foods are some of the key culprits. In addition, since fluctuations in estrogen is strongly associated with migraines, women who have reduced estrogen, such as peri and postmenopausal women, might want to consider hormone replacement therapy as a way to prevent migraines.
If you suspect a medication may be inciting headaches or migraines, it is important to work with your doctor to seek out a new medication or lessen its dosage and stopping medication abruptly without the guidance of your medical doctor may cause serious health consequences.
If workplace factors contribute to headaches, taking breaks from the prolonged activities that may incite a headache and performing relaxation techniques such as stretches and brief massages may also help to minimize risk.
Migraines & Headaches Resources
Since headaches affect so many millions of Americans, there are numerous supportive resources that can help the headache sufferer learn more about their condition and find ways to manage and prevent them. From websites to medical doctors and from support groups to acupuncturists, it is important to find the appropriate means of support so that the individual can lead a productive and pain-free life.
Here are some key migraine resources:
- Migraine Resource Network offers information, education and tools to provide relief to migraine sufferers.
- American Council for Headache Education (ACHE) is an educational resource for physicians, health care providers and patients who seek resources and educational information on headache and face pain
- The Brain Matters is a resourceful website developed by The American Academy of Neurology for migraine sufferers.
- The Headaches and Migraines Newsletter is a weekly online newsletter that provides medical information, updates and remedies for headache and migraine sufferers.