Headache Hell: Cause, Effect and Treatment

Brenda* can tell you when her crushing headache—that lasted 16 years—began.

She’d received great news about a new job. This news was preceded by many years of chronic stress involving her family. And it was this acute stress (good, but still stress) on top of sustained stress that took her down with a headache so unrelenting that it could barely be contained by doctor-prescribed methadone (synthetic heroin), along with eight other pharmaceuticals. For those of you with headaches or migraines, you’ve got some wiggle room before you get to that point, but you need to know how to take control of an emerging situation.

Traditional Chinese Medicine says neither a headache nor a migraine is considered to be a disease, but rather a symptom. It’s your body’s way of sending you a message that you are out of balance. A headache always has a cause, and that cause is usually stress or a combination of elements. By treating a headache’s cause, one should eliminate or greatly reduce the frequency or intensity of any future headaches.

Potential Headache Causes

It can be challenging to track a headache’s origin at times. The usual suspects include:

  • Stress. Stress is by far the most frequent cause of a headache or migraine.
  • Food triggers. Aspartame (Nutrasweet) is a known headache trigger, as are red wine, chocolate, and one of the 30 or more forms of Monosodium Glutatmate (MSG) on ingredients labels, including “natural flavors.” Also consider cheeses and other dairy products, citrus fruits, and the nitrates often present in bacon, processed meats and dried fruit as possible culprits.
  • Dehydration. The body is composed of more than 50 percent water and it needs replenishing.
  • Posture and muscle tension. Poor posture tightens the muscles connecting the head to the neck and shoulders. According to Carol Gamboa, Certified Exercise Therapist, if the head is jutting forward rather than being balanced on top of the shoulders and hips, the head position can be to blame for the tight muscles, which can restrict blood flow and cause tension headaches.
  • Hormonal changes, such as low estrogen. If someone is under chronic stress, cortisol levels are too high and interfere with normal hormone production.
  • Sinus congestion or strong odors.
  • Constipation. Traditional Chinese Medicine says a frontal headache (forehead) is linked to either constipation or other digestive issues.
  • Existing medications. Many prescription and over-the-counter medications list headaches as a potential side effect. If you plan to discontinue use of a medication, please coordinate with the prescribing physician. Some require a weaning schedule.
  • Eye strain and glare from electronics. If possible, turn down the screen brightness on your electronic devices.

How to Reduce Your Headache Odds

  • Keep a headache diary and know your triggers. Steven Meyers, M.D., neurologist with NorthShore University HealthSystem, says to pay attention to your headache triggers and ask yourself what you did differently prior to the headache’s start. Common triggers can be insufficient sleep, skipping meals, or not exercising. By taking better care of yourself, you should be able to predict and minimize headache risk.
  • Supplements. Most of us are magnesium deficient. Taking magnesium will relax muscles and cranial vessels. Coenzyme Q10 and Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) are two other common additions to a migraine treatment regimen. Dr. Meyers also suggests plant-based Butterbur capsules as a possible addition.
  • Stress management. There are many great stress relief options ranging from scheduling downtime and unplugging from the electronic world. Exercise outside whenever possible as it also helps melatonin production. Try yoga, biofeedback, hypnosis or cognitive behavioral therapy to train your body not to overreact to stressful stimuli. Stress may never disappear, but you should be able to train your body to treat it as background noise, rather than allowing it to overtake and debilitate you.

And If You Still Get Headaches, Try…

  • Acupuncture: If you think of a headache as analogous to a blocked pipe, a way to unblock that pipe (and the stress that may have caused it) is acupuncture. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes acupuncture, the insertion of hair-thin needles, as an effective headache treatment which reduces pain through the release of endorphins, promotes relaxation and eases tense muscles, while improving digestion and sleep.
  • Pressure points: Before reaching for an aspirin, look to a Korean microsystem of the body called Sooji Chim. Locate an extremely helpful pressure point on the palm side of your middle finger between the tip of the finger and the knuckle most distant from your palm. While seated, with legs uncrossed, roll the side of a pen against that entire area while remembering to breathe steadily. There will be one part of the finger tip that is significantly more sensitive than the rest. It should feel grainy underneath. After just a few seconds of strong rolling pressure, most headaches begin to lessen or release.
  • Laughter: Laughter is the best medicine. If your head doesn’t hurt too much, read a funny, light book or see a comedy.

Brenda wound up getting acupuncture, gradually cutting out three pharmaceuticals—including the methadone—under doctor supervision, and reports being highly functional today.

Whatever your strategy is, know that you can take control of headaches and will enjoy better days ahead.


*name has been changed

About the author: Dana Hoffman is a licensed acupuncturist and founder of Lake Shore Acupuncture.