Saturday, April 6, 2013

How to Tame a Headache

Headaches. It's a huge and complicated topic and I will just skim the surface in this post, and specifically discuss remedies for tension headaches.

First the disclaimer:

Headaches are not terribly uncommon even for healthy individuals, and most people have experienced them to some degree at some time in their lives. Headaches have a variety of causes, most of which are not serious and can be treated with lifestyle, hydration, and in some cases over the counter medications.

There are, however, some cases where a severe headache can be a warning sign for a very serious problem in the body/brain, such as stroke or brain hemorrhage, or brain tumor. If you feel concerned about the severity or frequency of a headache, or if it is accompanied by weakness or change in sensation in the body (especially on one side), or slurred speech, go to the emergency room immediately. A very severe headache accompanied by an aura could be a migraine and also may deserve medical attention. See the NIH page on headaches here.

A few days ago I woke up suddenly at exactly 5AM with a terrible headache. I could barely move! But fortunately (or unfortunately) I have been there before and I have collected some good strategies with managing this kind of pain. When I was a child I would get terrible headaches almost weekly. I was tested for everything under the sun, including Lyme Disease. Finally one pediatrician had me stand barefoot in his office and noticed that my ankles were misaligned (pronated) and sent me to a podiatrist. What a surprise! Everyone was looking inside me (blood work, allergies, etc) when the answer was in my physical body alignment. I began wearing inserts in my little sneakers and also began taking dance classes.

After years of classical dance training, and now yoga, my legs and ankles are strong and aligned... But I still do occasionally get headaches. Usually I can trace my headaches back to one or more of the following: dehydration, malnutrition/low blood sugar, fatigue, emotional stress, head/neck tension, and body misalignment (my neck is my trouble spot). This time it was a combo of dehydration and delayed effects of stress from my week.

Here is my Tame the Headache Standard Procedure.

1. Drink Water! This is number one, because it is just so common. Many times folks pop meds to relieve the pain but don't support their body's recovery from the pain. Chug a tall glass of water. Refill and sip over the next few hours. When the headache hits it's a valuable warning sign that something is amiss, so use it!

2. Stretch. Especially the head, neck, and chest. Let your head drop to each side, ear stretching toward shoulder. Hang forward in rag doll pose and shake your head yes/no. Grasp hands or a towel behind your back to stretch your chest. And don't forget to BREATHE!

3. BREATHE!! So often, when the headache comes on, I realize "My goodness, I have not been breathing all day." When emotional stress and busyness strike, I can often forget the breath. Deep belly breaths with eyes closed can sometimes do the trick.

4. Eat Something Nutritious. If it's been a while since you've had a meal, your body may be telling you it's time. Chose something hearty with healthy fats and dense nutrition, and low in sugar.

5. Take a Hot Bath. The hot water can be very relaxing to tense muscles which is a common cause for headache.

6. Sleep. When all else fails, I just put myself to bed. This is especially lovely with a warm herbal eye pillow.

Next time you have a headache try these instead of (or at least in addition to) popping OTC pain relievers. Let me know how it goes!