Almost everyone experiences headache at some stage in their lives. Many suffer from headaches on a regular basis and it is one of the most common conditions for which patients consult their GPs. Headaches can be at best uncomfortable and at worst worrisome or debilitating – they range in type and severity but for the majority of headaches, it is important to note, there is no serious cause. The most common types of headache are tension type headache (TTH), migraine and cluster headaches. Each has its’ own classic pattern and some people may suffer from more than one type of headache.
People often fear that their headaches, especially if severe or recurrent, may have a serious underlying cause - such as meningitis or a bleed or growth in the brain. Thankfully this is a relatively rare occurrence and usually a visit to your doctor can be enough to provide reassurance through careful eliciting of symptoms and physical examination. In a small number of cases a scan may be needed to complete the picture.
For the majority there are several simple steps that can ease the symptoms and frequency of painful but otherwise harmless headaches.
Avoid Regular Use Of Pain Killers
It may seem counterintuitive but regular headache sufferers may get into the habit of frequently using over the counter painkillers – such as paracetamol or anti-inflammatory medication to ease their symptoms.
The body can become used to these medications – especially those containing codeine or caffeine and missing a dose may cause a ‘rebound’ or ‘withdrawal’ headache. Stopping regular use of medication for a time may actually improve the frequency or severity of headaches.
Dehydration makes any headache worse and caffeine withdrawal can exacerbate symptoms – switching your coffee to water or to herbal teas may help symptoms. Regular water intake especially in warm weather is advised.
Headaches, especially migraine and tension type headache can be triggered or exacerbated by stress. Therefore, it is common sense that any measures to combat this and to relax the body may improve headaches. Relaxation techniques, meditation and acupuncture have all been shown in studies to improve either the severity or frequency of headaches.
That old chestnut! 30 minutes exercise, most days of the week, is advised to help almost any health condition and headache is no exception. Yoga can be particularly helpful for sufferers of TTH which is associated with tight musculature in the neck and upper back. Managing muscle tension with application of heat and paying attention to posture and ergonomics at desk work is also beneficial.
Following the steps already discussed should help towards getting a more restful night’s sleep. Eye strain from reading in low light may trigger headaches as can too much ‘screen time’ before or in bed. If tension type headaches are a problem avoid sleeping on greater than two pillows as it may trigger neck strain. Headaches including migraine may be triggered by fatigue. Even if more sleep does not reduce the occurrence of headache it may well leave you better able to cope with the symptoms if they hit.
As even following a balanced, sensible diet is important. Eat regularly, avoid missing meals and fill up on slow-release energy foods such as whole grains, nuts and seeds. Avoid excessive sugar, processed foods, salt and alcohol. Migraine sufferers may wish to avoid certain trigger foods such as cheese, red wine or chocolate.
So remember - most headaches are harmless. If you have a new or sudden headache you are worried about you should talk to your health professional. For most a comprehensive examination and diagnosis provides much needed reassurance and scans are not always needed to achieve this. Some types of headaches may benefit from specific medication but for all following the simple steps above should help to reduce severity or frequency of symptoms.