Jill Murphy, DPT, LAT, CSCS
If you are one of the 36 million Americans who suffer from debilitating migraine headaches at least once a week, then you know how disruptive this phenomenon can be. While it can put a kibosh on your day, it can also be accompanied by other life-disrupting issues such as insomnia, neck pain, numbness, tingling, visual changes, dizziness nausea, muscle tension, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and chronic pain syndromes, difficulty concentrating, and generalized full body malaise. Women suffer from debilitating migraine and tension headaches 3x more than men, with 30% of women experiencing migraines at some point during their lifetime.
Beyond migraines, tension headaches are even more common, with daily tension headaches appearing in 3% of the population, affecting more women than men. While tension headaches tend to be accompanied by muscle tension versus the aura that typically comes with migraines, there are effective treatments available for both forms of headaches.
One of the best places to start tackling a headache problem is to assess possible triggers. While some people are triggered by tyramine and/or caffeine in their diet, others notice a headache appears with excess stress and anxiety, changes in weather, too much time in bright light, strong odors, medications, lack of sleep, low blood sugar, and/or associated with hormone changes during the menstrual cycle.
If you can identify your trigger(s), you can develop a well-rounded plan to tackle your headaches. Changes might include adjusting birth control or hormone replacement medication to reduce the effects of estrogen imbalance, using sunglasses and limiting your hours indirect sunlight, following a low-tyramine diet, slowly decreasing and/or eliminating caffeine use, avoiding high odor cleaners, and planning regular stress-busting activities throughout your day. Even adding Magnesium and Vitamin B supplements to your regular diet can assist in diminishing headaches.
While finding a solution to your headache problem may seem like a shot in the dark, we do know that regular headache sufferers tend to have a hyperactive nervous system. This means that ordinary sounds, light, and physical stresses result in a heightened body response, an increase in sensitivity that needs to be dialed down to reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches. Symptoms of a hypersensitive nervous system include frequent nausea, overall body aches, muscle tension, painful areas of soft tissue around the body, insomnia or delay in falling asleep, and chronic neck and back pain.
Some medications like Lyrica and Neurontin are frequently prescribed to help relax the nervous system; however, many patients are bothered by unwanted side effects like mood changes and weight gain. Thankfully, there are some very helpful, non-medical remedies to help de-sensitize your nervous system. Regular exercise is one of the most effective ways to calm your nerves. Recent research indicates that moderate exercise is as effective as taking a daily headache medicine on reducing headache frequency and intensity. It doesn’t have to be an intense or lengthy endeavor, but start with 10-15 minutes of an exercise that makes you break a sweat, and then build from there. Daily exercise is optimal, but 4-5 days per week will also make a difference.
Also think about ways to decrease the stress in your life. Improve your work-life balance by eliminating unnecessary tasks and learning to say no to extra projects that burn you out. If you are a stay at home mom, take some time away from the kids doing an activity you enjoy that puts you at ease (away from the kids!). Utilizing a strong social support system to empathize with others and vent any issues you may be facing can also help unload unhealthy emotional stresses that quickly dial up your nervous system.
Other simple ways to de-sensitize the nervous system the use of heat, stretching, and/or attending physical therapy to reduce muscle tension, and learning neural mobilizing techniques that assist in de-sensitizing the nervous system. You can also try acupuncture, massage therapy, dry needling, or injections to reduce pain and de-stress your body.
Don’t put off addressing your daily or weekly headaches- do something today to address the problem so you can return to the life you love without interruption! Talk to your healthcare provider about putting together a plan that will work for you!