The Headache Series - Part One: 7 Tips for Soothing A Headache You May Not Have Used Before
I have suffered from headaches for over 20 years. They have interfered with my studies, work, and relationships. They started so early in my life that I lived with them for years thinking the condition was just going to have to be something that I had no choice but to deal with and manage. I finally saw a doctor early in 2015 at the request of my husband who insisted that somebody should be able to do something about them. Lucky for me, he was right. My doctor performed a series of testing to rule out any serious underlying issues, and then we did a couple of months of trial therapy which resulted in a regimen of daily preventive medication and a triptan prescription for breakthrough migraines.
Not everybody needs prescription treatment of headaches, and not every headache is the same. Treatment can vary according to the type of headache, contributing factors, individual experience and preferences, and ultimately whatever works for the sufferer. What I would like to share here are some practices I have learned along the journey of my headache filled life that have provided me with great relief in some of my most painful moments.
I want to start right here with a very serious disclaimer: If you have headaches - this article is not meant to be diagnostic or a cure. I highly encourage you to see your doctor for professional guidance and treatment.
The issue of headaches is highly complex. For this article I will not be reviewing such intricacies as the different types of headaches, preventive measures, the importance of keeping a headache diary, or many other facets of this condition. I am simply focusing on a minimal list of the contributing factors I have experienced, and a couple of alternative methods I have used.
What Can Cause A Headache?
First let's look at what can cause a headache. In my life the following issues have consistently reigned as contributing factors:
- Stress - Physical, mental, emotional, financial... We all have stress. If you have employment, children, parents, siblings, coworkers, friends, enemies, spouses, etc., there is a good chance there are some stressful situations in the mix somewhere, and you understand what I'm saying here. And let's not forget that even good stress is still stress. I find that the majority of my headaches are often occurring during stressful times of my life.
- Sleep Deprivation - For me this is not so much about the magic number of hours that I get, but the routine that my body is used to. For example when my daughter was an infant, I became used to and could function comfortably on five hours of sleep. This sleep pattern lasted for years. These days I do have the luxury of longer sleep hours, but when they are interrupted for whatever reason for more than a night or two I typically can count this factor among what may be contributing to my most recent bout of headaches.
- Dehydration - It seems we read everywhere that we should be drinking 8-10 x 12 ounce glasses of pure water pure day. I find when I drink less than the recommended amount I can usually attribute this as an underlying potential reason.
- Malnutrition - What I mean by this in my case is definitely not starving. My BMI is constantly fluctuating on the border around normal weight and overweight. What I mean here is the lack of fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. When my life is especially hectic and my family finds ourselves surviving on mostly fast food or fast prep meals at home that lack fresh produce (i.e. hamburger helper, mac'n'cheese, etc), I tend to notice a correlation in the uptick of my headaches.
- Inactivity - My exercise habits ebb and flow with the course of the rest of the ongoings of my life. I find if I fall out of regularly getting my blood pumping with aerobic activity, it stresses me out which turns into a headache. Or it could be the other way around. Either way I do know that I feel so much better physically overall, including reduced headaches, if I'm exercising routinely.
- Alcohol Intake - I very much enjoy delicious wine, craft beer, and the occasional cocktail. But I have found that I must adhere to a pretty strict two beverage maximum if I choose to indulge. The resulting headache to me is just not worth it.
- Caffeine Interruption - In the battle of my headache management, I realized I was so dependent on coffee that I had to make a lifestyle decision. If I went too long each day without getting coffee, I would start to get a headache. I decided to kick the habit. When I took an assessment of my life as objectively as I could, I became a little uncomfortable with how seriously my mornings, routine, behavior, and attitude were affected by this addiction. I do love the taste, smell, and experience of drinking coffee but now it is relegated to a very occasional indulgence. And by that I literally mean, I only have a cup once every several months (if that) and when I do, I savor it like a forbidden dessert.
Contributing Factors Poll
If you suffer headaches, how many of the above listed causes have you experienced that you think may contribute to your headaches?
7 Soothing Therapies
Over the years I have personally tested and found the following interventions to be highly effective for soothing my discomfort.
- Alka-Seltzer - Active ingredients: Aspirin, Citric Acid, Bicarb. What works so great about Alka-Seltzer is the powerful soothing effects due to it's dual fighting powers against pain and nausea. If you can't stand the taste of the tablets dissolved in water, try dissolving them in a flavored beverage. The most palatable combination I have come up with so far is dissolving lemon-lime flavored Alka-Seltzer in lemon-lime soda, such as Sprite or 7up. You can try anything that tastes better to you - orange juice, Dr. Pepper (beware the bubbles - use a large glass, pour slow, and stir frequently to get rid of the carbonation quicker), or whatever works for you. Please be sure to follow dosing instructions according to the manufacturer.
- Icy Hot - Active ingredients: Menthol, Methyl Salicylate. Massage icy hot onto the back of your neck, under the hair line at the base of your skull, and an inch or two from base of your neck into the surrounding shoulder and back area. My advise is to use disposable gloves while applying to minimize unintended exposure elsewhere. Note of caution: I do recommend you test this on a small area prior to using it as I describe. Please be advised the initial sensation using icy hot can be very intense - especially on the sensitive skin on the back of your neck. In my experience the intensity that is initially felt diminishes within a minute or two prior to feeling the relief you are seeking.
- Dramamine - Active ingredient: Dimenhydrinate. Dramamine is intended for motion sickness but works excellent on the nausea associated with headaches. What I especially like about the use of Dramamine for soothing a headache is that is also helps you fall asleep comfortably. Often with headaches all I want to do is sleep, but, I find that if I fall asleep struggling with the discomfort of pain and nausea of a headache, I still wake up with the headache. This is incredibly frustrating. Dramamine combined with icy hot and a couple other non-pharma remedies can absolutely bring comfort. Please be sure to follow dosing instructions according to the manufacturer.
- Herbal Tea (Lemon Ginger, Peppermint) - I have found herbal tea to be helpful not so much for management of my pain but for effective relief of the accompanying nausea.
- Ice Packs - I find ice packs to relief the pain specifically across my forehead and frontal lobe area. Although this may sound overly simple, the results are highly effective. Simply fill a plastic re-sealable bag with ice, cover with a thin cotton cloth and apply to the forehead. Note of caution: I advise against placing an ice pack directly on your skin. Please be sure to have a barrier such as a thin towel or washcloth in place. Improper use can result in serious injury.
- Heat Packs - Simultaneously with the ice pack if possible, I apply a heat pack to my neck and shoulders. My favorite kind is a lavender scented reusable heat pack that a friend made for me. I found a commercial version available for sale at a local home and bath store. Note of caution: Be sure to follow any manufacturer's recommendation and never fall asleep with a heat pack. I like the safety of a reusable version when compared to an electric heat pack. Even reusable heat packs can produce excessive heat higher than what is safe for skin contact. Please use caution with this intervention.
- Music That You Like - This may sound counter-intuitive due to the sensitivity to loud noises that often accompanies some headaches, but hear me out on this one. When I have a headache most sounds become irritating, for example someone who is complaining or whining, our even just discussing a topic that you are not engaged in. These otherwise mildly abrasive sounds become full on screeching nails on a chalkboard when a headache is present. If I can turn on some of my favorite songs to listen to or even sing along with, my pain becomes much more tolerable. Below is one example of many free options found online for you to give music a try for your headache pain relief.
"Music to Help Soothe Your Mind"
You Don't Have to Suffer!
According to a study published by the American Headache Society, ~17% of adults surveyed had reported having migraine or severe headaches over a 3 month time frame (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23470015/). The same study found "The burden of headache was highest in females 18-44, where the 3-month prevalence of migraine or severe headache was 26.1% and head pain was the third leading cause of ED visits."
My message to you here is if you have headaches, you do not have to suffer. I hope that my suggested remedies help you, and I highly encourage you to make an appointment to see your doctor to discuss the issue further. Quality headache management has dramatically improved my life. I wish I had sought professional treatment years earlier than I did.
My wishes for soothing comfort go out to you! If anything I have suggested proves helpful, or if there is a topic about headaches you would like me to write about, please leave a comment below to let me know.