Dear Dr. Susan,
I recently saw my doctor about my head-aches and, after a thorough examination, she concluded that they're simply tension headaches. I'm relieved that it's nothing serious, but I don't want to keep taking painkillers.
Can you offer some safer solutions? —Kelly
Fortunately, safer, more natural solutions for tension headaches do exist. Several factors can lead to tension head-aches—the most common form of headache—and solutions vary depending on the cause. I'll tell you about each cause and what solutions work for that particular cause.
Cause #1: Misalignment: This is a surprisingly common cause of tension headaches. To determine if this is a trigger for you, have someone take a side-view photograph of you while you're standing up. Looking at the photo, draw a straight line from your ankle to your hip, then continue up past your head.
If your ear is in front of the line, you may be at higher risk for tension headaches because this misalignment activates trigger points in key muscles, including the trapezius (which connects both sides of your neck to your shoulders), the sternocleidomastoids (which are located from the bump behind each ear to the base of your throat), and the temporalis (which are at the sides of your head).
Trigger point activation in the head, neck, and shoulders is a huge cause of tension headache. A good temporary fix for this problem is myofascial trigger point therapy, which can deactivate trigger points (Headache:The Journal of Head and Face Pain).
Contact the National Association of Myofascial Trigger Point Therapists to find a professional near you. An even better, permanent fix is realignment. Physical therapist Pete Egoscue, author of Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain, specializes in designing special exercises called "E-cises" that realign your body and permanently relieve pain.
For tension headaches, his program takes 7 to 17 minutes every morning: Static Extension unlocks your shoulders and "allows the neck to move back into extension."
Place your knees "on a block or chair with your hands on the floor. Let your back and head relax toward the floor and let your shoulder blades come together.
Hold for one to two minutes." Static Back. "Lie on your back with both legs bent at right angles on a chair or block. Rest your hands on your stomach or the floor, below shoulder level, with palms up. Let the back settle into the floor.
Breathe from the diaphragm (that is, do stomach breathing). Hold this position for five to ten minutes."
Air Bench convinces your "hips, shoulders, neck, and head that they are capable of operating in vertical alignment.
Stand with your back to the wall. Press your hips and the small of your back into it while walking the feet forward and simultaneously sliding down into a sitting position. Stop when you've reached roughly a ninety-degree angle.
The knees should be over the ankles, not the toes. Hold for one to three minutes." Squats "[put] the head, neck, shoulders, and hips into proper alignment while loading them equally and engaging the right muscles." Hold a doorknob next to you for support and "...bend your knees and arch your lower back. Keep your torso straight. Lower your body so that the knees and hips are parallel.
The arms should be straight and the knees aligned with hips and feet. The torso remains vertical throughout. Hold for one to two minutes."
Cause #2: Restricted Rhythm (craniosacral rhythm)
Your brain and spinal cord bathe in cerebrospinal fluid, which circulates due to your craniosacral rhythm (CSR).
This causes a subtle, bellows-like widening and narrowing of your skull at its seams. Anything that restricts your CSR—including orthodontics, tight glasses, or a tight ponytail—can give you a tension headache.
If this is the cause of your tension headaches, the best solution is to stop putting anything restrictive on your face or head.
However, if this is not an option, a good temporary fix is craniosacral therapy, which brings the central nervous system into harmony and improves the movement of CSR by subtly moving the spinal and cranial bones.
This therapy must be done with a specialist. To find a certified craniosacral therapist in your area, visit www.craniosacraltherapy.org.
Cause #3: Overuse of Medications: If you take medication for your headaches (even over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen) more than once a week, you may have "medication-overuse headaches" (MOH).
Overusing medications can distort the way your brain responds to neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin (European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology).
Specifically, MOH can disrupt your body's normal serotonin function, which results in significantly lower levels of serotonin and other compounds (endocannabinoids) that are part of the serotonin-generating pathway.
The only real "cure" for MOH is to stop using the medications that are causing the headaches. Whether you taper your use gradually or go cold turkey, you may have withdrawal headaches that persist up to 10 days.
However, using a mixture of 1 part peppermint oil, 9 parts alcohol can help a lot. Using a Q-tip, simply apply the peppermint solution where it hurts. You should feel relief after 15 minutes. If not, you can reap-ply again 30 minutes after the initial application, and again an hour later.
According to a placebo-controlled study reported in an issue of American Family Physician, 15 minutes after application, this solution was shown to have the same effect as acetaminophen, but without the side effects.
Cause #4: Stress: Stress is one of those things that some people take in stride, while others take to heart. Studies show that stress truly gets to you if you believe that your circumstances control your life.
The resultant anxiety is the first step in your body's stress response, which raises your cortisol levels and boosts your risk of developing a headache (L'Encephale). It's even harder on you if you believe the stressful situation is your fault or your responsibility to fix.
This is, unfortunately, a common female reflex (L'Encephale). To reduce stress in your life, adopt the art of graciously saying "no," and also look for healthier, less stress-inducing lifestyle options. In addition, practicing relaxation is among the best methods to reduce stress.
Start with a reflexology session—foot and/or hand massage based on an energy map of reflex points. When done properly, reflexology promotes incredible stress relief and relaxation.
To find a reflexologist in your area, visit www. reflexology-usa.org. If you prefer to practice reflexology at home, use a good manual, such as Complete Reflexology for Life by Barbara and Kevin Kunz (available at Amazon.com).
You also can maintain daily relaxation with whatever technique fits your style—such as yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, and meditation, to name a few.
Cause #5: Diet: Skipping a meal can drop your blood glucose levels enough to cause a headache. You also may be susceptible to common headache "trigger" foods such as processed meats, chocolate, cheese, MSG, sugar, wine, or beer.
If this is the case, avoid any trigger foods, and eat at regular intervals to keep your blood glucose levels stable. Include at least one daily serving of red/purplish fruits and vegetables such as purple cabbage, beets, blueberries, and cherries.
According to a Michigan State University study, the anthocyanins in these foods help prevent tension headaches. In addition, take a top-quality multi-nutrient that includes vitamin B2 (riboflavin), which is also reported to prevent headaches.
May your days be filled with peace and love.
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