Last year, British women spent £300m on headache tablets. A few lifestyle changes might help you deal with the root of the problem, says Anita Chaudhri
Why, then, are headaches not taken more seriously? Despite the fact that the World Health Organisation recently classified them as a significant health disorder, sympathy is thin on the ground for sufferers. All too often, mentioning a headache as your reason for missing work or a social event either marks you out as a lily-livered malingerer, or it’s taken as a euphemism for a hangover.
Examine the medical evidence and a state of confusion is soon apparent. Headaches are caused when veins and arteries inside the brain are compressed or inflamed. However, there are as many different types of common, non-migraine headaches as there are remedies, which is why a recurring sore head is so difficult to prevent. In women, hormonal changes caused by PMT are a common trigger for headaches, while non-physical stress factors, such as depression and bereavement, can bring on painful attacks.
“Headache treatment depends on what’s causing the pain,” says Richard Lanigan, a chiropractor who specialises in tension headaches. “A headache arising from visual problems can often be cured by wearing spectacles. A headache caused by infection of the sinuses or ears is relieved when the infection subsides. But the most common headaches are usually treated with painkillers. The £300m spent by British women on painkillers last year alone may provide relief, but though the pain may be gone, the cause of the headache is not corrected. That’s why millions of people swallow pills for years and are possibly suffering from the side effects of long-term medication, but they aren’t actually getting better, just feeling so temporarily.”
However, the good news is that a great many headaches are caused by subtle triggers that, once identified, are surprisingly easy to eliminate — just by making lifestyle changes.
RICKY GERVAIS SYNDROME
Your office could well be the root cause of a persistent headache. According to the online support group Headache UK, tension headaches account for 70% of the total, and poor posture is often a contributory factor. Those who spend hours slumped over a desk and computer with poor ergonomic design are most vulnerable.
“This type of headache results from contraction of the head and neck muscles,” explains Lanigan. “Pain is often felt in the generalised area of the head and neck, rather than on one side. It may also be situated in the back of the head and neck and feel like a tight band.” A combination of stress and poor posture can cause reduced blood flow to the muscles, especially around the base of the neck, causing pain that radiates upwards to the head.
Apart from stressful relationships with your boss and workmates, there are other, more unexpected headache hazards. It takes only one person wearing overly pungent perfume, or aftershave, in a confined office cubicle to trigger an allergy headache. Office lighting that flickers, or is too bright, is also known to spark a reaction in brain chemistry, causing stabbing headache pain.
THE DAILY GRIND
Persistent teeth-grinding, generally caused by stress, can cause tension headaches. Those who clench their jaws suffer similar symptoms, and even something as minor as having a new filling at the dentist can cause problems, because it may change the way your upper and lower teeth rest together. Lloyd Jerome, a Glasgow-based dentist, recently introduced an American-designed mouthpiece for his patients and claims a 100% success rate in eliminating headaches. “It is uncomfortable, like having a block of Lego in the mouth, but the great advantage is that there are no side effects.”
HEADACHE PILLS CAN CAUSE … HEADACHES
Scary but true. The cause of your headache might actually be down to the fact that you take too many headache tablets, a condition described by doctors as “medication-overuse headache”. A study published in the British Medical Journal last October found that “daily or near-daily headache is at epidemic levels, affecting up to 5% of some populations, and chronic overuse of headache drugs may account for half of this phenomenon”. The human body produces its own painkillers. If you constantly take painkilling pills, the body gets confused and stops producing the natural analgesics. When you stop taking the pills, a new headache kicks in. One German study found that even a two-week course of Tylenol, an American painkiller, caused a drop in serotonin-receptor density in the brains of rats, an effect that is reversed when they are taken off the drug.
HANGOVER FROM HELL
Alcohol can trigger cluster headaches, a condition so severe that it has been nicknamed the “suicide” or “ice-pick” headache. Cluster headaches consist of several headaches in succession, at the same time of day. The headache usually affects only one side of the head and often occurs in women above the age of 30. One of the latest and safest treatments for severe attacks is oxygen, which takes just 15 minutes to work. Apart from booze, which can set off an attack within five to 45 minutes, other triggers include foods such as eggs, cheese and chocolate.
NOT TONIGHT, DARLING
Often the clichéd excuse for avoiding sex, headaches can in fact be caused by it, lasting anything up to 24 hours afterwards. Known as coital cephalgia, postcoital headaches are usually experienced by men and occur shortly after orgasm, because of the sudden change in blood flow and pressure. The prescribed remedy is to take a painkiller before sex.
The British Medical Journal identified this new headache hazard in December 2002, following a study conducted by McMaster University, Ontario. Also known as the “cold stimulus” headache, it occurs between the eyes after eating or drinking something very cold. Fortunately, an ice-cream headache lasts no longer than five minutes and may be prevented by eating ice cream slowly, in small amounts, and by letting it melt in the mouth before swallowing.
What you can do
1. Don’t ignore a headache, see your GP, who may refer you for tests such as a CT scan to ensure there are no problems with the blood vessels in your brain.
2. Keep a headache diary, describing type of pain (eg throbbing or stabbing), duration of headache and environmental factors — where you were at the time, what you had eaten or drunk the previous day. This can help to isolate possible triggers.
3. Take regular breaks when doing anything that requires keeping your head in the same position for a long time — being at a desk is an obvious hazard, but driving and even sitting through a long play or opera can cause tension headaches. Get up and stretch your shoulder blades and neck.
4. If you experience persistent headaches, join a support group. Visit www.i-h-s.org for links.
5. If a headache lasts for more than a day, and is accompanied by dizziness, nausea or vision disturbances, you could be suffering from a migraine and should seek immediate medical advice.