Today, headaches are extremely common complains. Even though they are not life threatening, the pain disables our normal functioning and thinking and impacts every aspect of our lives.
Over 45 million people in America suffer from chronic headaches, and out of these, 28 million suffer from migraines, according to the National Headache Foundation. Moreover, about 20 percent of adolescents and children also suffer from headaches.
But what do we know about the causes and symptoms of headaches?
- Headaches can last for any time between a few hours and a few weeks, which depends on the type of headache.
- Headaches can be the symptom of another condition.
- The most common is the tension-type headache.
- Hangovers and a wide variety of conditions can cause headaches.
- The most common treatment for headaches is pain relief medication but overuse of such medications can lead to developing rebound headaches.
Which type of headache do I have?
Headaches are classified in several categories and the most common types of headaches are:
Tension or chronic daily headaches
Among adolescents and adults this is the most common form of primary headache, either episodic or chronic. These headaches cause mild to moderate dull constant pain that is felt on both sides of the head, while sometimes the pain spreads to or from the neck. The pain normally starts slowly and gradually increases in the middle of the day.
Although the exact causes are unknown, according to neurovascular theory, various things trigger abnormal brain activity which in turn causes changes in the blood vessels in the brain. There are, however, some form of migraines that are linked with inherited abnormalities in certain parts of the brain, thus genetics might also be the cause of such pain.
Migraines usually occur one to four times per month, lasting four hours to three days, followed by symptoms such as sensitivity to light and noise, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite and stomach upset. Children can suffer from migraines as well, and they will usually look pale, feel dizzy, have fever and upset stomach and blurred vision.
Mixed headaches or transformed migraines
Adults and children experience a mixed headache syndrome; that is a combination of tension headaches and migraine.
This is the most severe type of primary headaches, although the least common, the pain, located behind one eye or in the eye region, is intense and severe so that most of those who suffer from it cannot sit still but pace during an attack. These headaches occur one to three times per day and may last two weeks to three months. Sometimes, the headache can disappear completely for a year only to recur.
A deep and constant pain in cheekbones and forehead usually occurs with other sinus symptoms: nasal discharge, fever, facial swelling, etc. This deep and constant pain intensifies with sudden head movement.
The most common cause of acute headaches, that usually occur in children and adolescents, is a sinus or respiratory infection. Acute headaches occur suddenly and the symptoms subside after a short period of time.
The most common secondary headache is rebound or medication-overuse headache, which is improving with pain medicine, but worsening when the effects wear off. Rebound headaches can cause neck pain, nose stuffiness, restlessness and disturbed sleep.
These headaches are associated with changing hormone levels that occur during pregnancy, menopause and menstruation. Some women can experience hormone headaches that are chemically induced, for instance with birth control pills.
Chronic progressive or inflammatory headaches
Although these are the least common types of headaches, they may be the result of an illness or disorder of the brain, and can happen more often over time.
What causes headaches?
As standalone illnesses, primary headaches are caused by the overactivity of certain structures in the head that are pain sensitive:
- Blood vessels
- Nerves of the neck and head
Lifestyle and unhealthy nutrition can also trigger primary headaches:
- Processed food, such as processed meat that contain nitrates
- Skipping meals
- Lack of sleep, changes in sleep patterns
- Stress and anxiety
- Poor posture
Secondary headaches are caused by a number of different conditions:
- Alcohol-induced hangover
- Panic attacks
- Blood clots
- Brain tumor
Even though we may not be certain about the causes, we need to know how to ease the pain. The most common treatments for headaches are pain relief medications and rest, but if painkillers don’t stop the pain, and if your headache is persistent, it’s time you try other approaches.
When you take painkillers, the real cause that triggers the headaches is only temporarily stopped. Moreover, natural remedies will not cause additional health problems in your body, which is not the case with medicaments. Furthermore, you are less likely to become dependent on painkillers.
The truth is that no better medicine for treating headaches can be found elsewhere than in nature. For centuries people have treated headaches with natural remedies using many different herbs, plants, and minerals.
Let’s have a look at those that are the most efficient and beneficial.
Essential oils for headaches and migraines
Apart from the fact that aromatherapy (aroma-scent, therapy-treatment) offers enjoyment, aromatherapy is a technique which uses the fragrant parts of aromatic plants to improve health and treat certain conditions. By inhaling the appropriate fragrance you can reduce stress, energize your body, soothe the pain, lift your mood or hasten a good sleep. If you massage certain part of your body with aromatic oils, you can ease pain and aches. In a word, aromatherapy can treat a wide range of emotional and physical problems.
Essential oils are concentrated liquid extracts from the flowers, leaves, roots, bark and fruits of a particular aromatic plant, therefore, each oil has a unique scent and compounds.
#1 Lavender oil
Lavandula angustifolia is famous for its relaxing effects on the body and therapeutic properties. Apart from being the most versatile oil of all essential oils, its invigorating fragrance is calming physically and emotionally. Many use lavender oil for sleeping aid, although this oil is highly effective remedy for skin irritations, and bruises. It’s not a surprise that lavender oil is used to relieve headache pain. Its health benefits are numerous, but mostly it’s known for the ability to eliminate nervous tension, which is very often followed by headache pain, treat respiratory problems, and enhance blood circulation. Of all the oils, it’s probably the most useful home remedy for migraines and headaches that can be either applied topically or inhaled.
If you use lavender oil for headache treatment, use two to four drops for every two to three cups of boiling water when inhaling.
When applied externally, you don’t have to dilute the oil. This oil is known as an excellent remedy for pain, whether it’s caused by sore throat and tense muscles or sprains.
Lavender oil is famous in aromatherapy, and it blends well with other oils such as cedarwood, pine, clary sage, geranium, and nutmeg.
#2 Peppermint oil
The health benefits of peppermint oil date back to Ancient Greece, and ancient Japan and China when it was used as a folk remedy. Moreover, peppermint oil was found in several Egyptian pyramids. It is also said that peppermint oil is one of the oldest European herbs used for medical purposes.
Peppermint is a herb between two types of mint, water mint and spearmint, often used to flavor foods, while leaves, either fresh or dried, are used for tea. Peppermint oil, however, is known to be a traditional remedy for indigestion, cold symptoms, stomach problems, muscle and nerve pain, and headaches. Peppermint oil is probably the second most versatile essential oil. People love peppermint oil for its cooling sensation, and calming effect. When used topically, peppermint oil can relieve sore muscles and muscle spasms, thus, its primary benefit is to relieve pain.
As a powerful fresh oil, peppermint oil is usually used to treat tension headache because peppermint helps control blood flow in the body, and very often headaches and migraine pain are caused by poor circulation. When the headache starts, all you have to do is massage the oil onto your temples, forehead and the back of your jaw. You will instantly feel the cooling sensation. It is good if you can find a quiet place to relax after you apply the oil.
If, however, peppermint oil starts irritating your skin, dilute it with olive oil.
Inhaling peppermint oil can help eliminate the effects of nausea, which appear with strong pain. One study showed that due to its anti inflammatory properties and cooling effect, peppermint oil can reduce the pain of migraines within 15 minutes.
#3 Basil oil
As an excellent tonic for nervous disorders and a stress reliever, basil oil is great for clearing your mind and improving concentration. Basil oil has many benefits, it’s effective in treating digestive disorders, nausea, infections in the respiratory tract, for insect bites, and even hiccups. If you add basil oil to a warm bath, it will help you relieve arthritis and muscle and menstrual pains.
In vapor therapy, basil oil is an effective remedy for tension headaches and migraines. You can use 2 to 3 drops in a diffuser to relieve the pain, or you can add 2 to 3 drops to A carrier oil and massage your forehead. If you prefer to treat your headaches with compress, you can add 2 to 3 drops in either hot or cold compress, whichever suits you best.
Basil oil blends well with other oils, such as ginger, geranium, lavender, peppermint, lemon, bergamot, orange, and fennel.
#4 Eucalyptus oil
Thick, long leaves of eucalyptus are distilled to create essential oil, and because there are more than 600 species, there are different scents. Its odor is sharp, but its health properties are numerous: antiviral, antimicrobial, antiseptic, therapeutic, thus, eucalyptus oil is able to relieve rheumatic, arthritis and other pains. In Australia, it has long been a home remedy for flu, fever, muscle pain and sore throat. Today, it’s the most popular essential oil used to relieve sinus and asthma.
To relieve headache pain, you can add one to two drops to a compress. Fill a large bowl with a cold water, add a few drops of oils, swirl the washcloth in the water, wring it out, place the washcloth over the forehead and leave for 10 minutes.
The scent of eucalyptus oil increases brain wave and counters mental fatigue, thus you can add three to four drops in your bath.
Food and herbs
Certain food affects the severity of headaches, thus it’s important to make changes to your diet.
Although certain food might not have the same effects on different types of headaches and different people, certain food affects the frequency of headaches, such as peanut butter, dairy, some fruits such as avocado, banana, and citrus fruits, and especially food that contains tyramine (an amino acid found in red wine) and fermented and pickled food. It’s especially important to avoid food that contains nitrites and nitrates, found in processed meat, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) that is used in food as flavor.
How can you do that?
Today there are many unhealthy food we eat every day, so to track your headache patterns, you should keep a diary.
In supermarkets, you should always read food labels, some things can be hidden.
Most importantly, you need to listen to your body.
What food can help you alleviate the pain?
For everyday tension headaches, almonds are a healthier alternative to medicine and a natural remedy. Almonds are pain relievers because they contain salicin, a compound found in popular painkillers. Eat a handful of almonds when you start to feel the ache.
Remember: almonds can be a trigger food for people who suffer from migraines.
Sometimes headaches are caused by inflammation, and in such situation the right remedy is to consume omega-3 taffy acids, that is, flaxseed. You can also use flaxseed oil or ground or whole seeds.
#3 Cayenne powder
When you feel an irritating pain, grabbing for a spicy food might not be the solution you had in mind, however, cayenne is a powerful natural remedy, a very effective spice for treating pain and inflammation. The secret is the ingredient called capsaicin that inhibits one of the main element in pain perception, Substance P. We feel pain because of Substance P, and the capsaicin depletes it. One study, published in The Clinical Journal of Pain, supports these benefits of cayenne. When applied topically to the nasal passages, people feel a significant decrease in severity of the headaches.
How to prepare this remedy? Dilute a ½ teaspoon of cayenne powder in 4 ounces of water, soak a cotton swab in it and stir it around. Apply the swab to each nostril until you feel the heat.
#4 Apple cider vinegar
For centuries, apple cider vinegar has been used to treat many common health problems. Although some studies confirmed its benefits, apple cider vinegar is mostly known as a folk remedy.
To treat headache pain, use a large bowl, pour ¼ cup of apple cider vinegar, and fill it halfway with boiling water. Use a towel, place it over your head so that it traps the steam, and hold your face over it. Stay like this for 5 to 10 minutes, breathing in and out. Don’t get too close or your face might get burned by the steam. After 10 minutes, drink a glass of cool water.
#5 Ginger root
Ginger root tea is a natural alternative for treating migraines. Why? Ginger root inhibits the prostaglandin synthesis, a process that makes fat compounds in the cells which are alerting neurons to pain. Certain enzymes can trigger this synthesis, while some drugs inhibit it (aspirin).
Use raw ginger root, slice 3 slices, and add to two cups of water. Once it starts simmering, cover it and leave it for 30 minutes. Strain it and sip slowly, breathing in the steam.
Even though it’s mostly used to treat fever, feverfew is a common herbal remedy for headaches, which is treating and preventing migraine pain. When the migraine starts, the blood vessels are changing, that is, expanding, and pressing in nerves. Feverfew effectively relax the tension by easing the pressure. One important compound in feverfew is parthenolide, which has similar effects as aspirin, reducing the inflammation and pain in general.
To ease migraine pain, add 1 ounce of either fresh or dried feverfew flowers to 1 pint of boiling water. Let it steep for 10 minutes, strain, and drink half a cup twice a day.
A common cause of headaches is inflammation, and buckwheat contains flavonoid known as rutin, a phytochemical that has antioxidant properties and help protect the cells from damages. One study confirmed that buckwheat can reduce the symptoms of headaches, including fatigue and nausea.
Native Americans have long used butterbur as a remedy for headaches. Western medicine, however also confirmed its health benefits. The American Academy of Neurology and American Headache Society confirmed those benefits based on two strong clinical studies.
Butterbur species have chemicals that both increase the inflammatory effects and act as natural beta blockers, which as a result, has a normal flow of blood to the brain. Due to these abilities, butterbur help control blood pressure that can cause migraines. Butterbur root has the highest concentration of these chemicals.
When looking for a butterbur extract search for the one labeled PA-free, which means it does not have harmful chemicals that are naturally found in the plant. To reduce the severity of migraines and prevent them, a daily dosage for adults is usually 50-100 milligrams twice a day. Before you use it, consult with a doctor.
Massage and Acupuncture
To experience temporary pain relief, try rubbing your temples. Do-it-yourself scalp massage is a very effective remedy for migraine pain. One small study showed that people with migraines who had six weekly massage treatments experienced less migraines during the massage weeks and had a better sleep.
Massage in general has numerous health benefits; when it comes to pain, reflexology (massaging reflex points on the hands and feet) is seen as a useful remedy for headaches. By stretching your head, one can relieve muscle tension that contributes to pain.
You might also want to know how to find the best massage therapist.
Acupuncture offers great benefits in preventing headaches and migraines, and in general helps improve the lives of people who suffer from frequent headaches. Several studies in the past years confirmed that acupuncture can provide a lasting relief from headache pain and prevent migraines and headaches. According to the traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture affects the flow of the energy, “qi”, through pathways that run through the body inserting needles at specific points along these pathways.
Acupuncture has many variations, and given it’s a promising nontraditional headache therapy, if you decide to try it, choose a therapist with a state license.
Relaxation: Meditation and Yoga
I have already written about numerous benefits of meditation, speaking how various meditation techniques can be used to ease the pain and treat chronic pain by quieting the mind from distractions. One study confirmed that spiritual meditation reduces headache frequency while also improving pain tolerance. If you meditate only five minutes a day, you will see significant improvement in your overall health, physically and mentally.
Yoga uses a combination of physical posture, breathing techniques and meditation to balance the mind and body. As well as meditation, yoga will help you focus and drop tension which makes it very effective treatment for tension headaches. In one study, two groups of migraine patients were randomly assigned to either practice yoga for three months or to try a self-care treatment. After the treatment, those who participated in yoga therapy, confirmed that they had less frequent and less painful migraine attacks.
Regular exercising, such as aerobics, biking, or swimming can reduce migraine intensity and frequency, according to a study published in Science Daily. Good exercising releases endorphins, which can be very helpful in several ways, but first and foremost, helping you undermine the uncomfortable effects caused by headache and loosening up tight muscles and joints that can also cause or contribute to headache.
Heat and cold compress
Expanded blood vessels create pressure on the nerves, which is very often the cause of a headache. In such situations, if you apply something cold, you can relieve some of the pressure. In other situations, when tension and anxiety cause headaches, cold compress will enlarge blood vessels contributing to throbbing ache. So whether you use a hot or cold compress, this is a no-risk headache therapy that anyone can use. Moreover, you will have to find out which suits you best.
What you need to do is to find a quiet place, turn or dim the light off and place the cold or hot compress on your forehead or where the pain is concentrated. Relax, and do this for as long as you think is necessary.
How do you deal with headache pain?
Buchholz, D. (2002). Heal Your Headache. Workman Publishing Company
Billings, S. (2013). The Big Book of Home Remedies.
Cohen, S. (2013). Headache Free: Relieve Migraine, Tension, Cluster, Menstrual and Lyme Headaches. Dear Pharmacist Inc
Minirth, F. (1995). The Headache Book. Thomas Nelson Inc
Rankin, J. (2013). Migraine Headache Relief: Clinically Proven HOME Remedies Based on Chinese Medicine. Luminos Publishing
Rober, T. (2005). Living Well with Migraine Disease and Headaches: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Tell You…That You Need to Know. William Morrow Paperback
Summers, E. (2013). Natural Home Remedies For Headaches & Migraines
Tepper, S.J. (2004).Understanding Migraine and Other Headaches (Understanding Health and Sickness Series)University Press of Mississippi
Turknett, J. (2013). The Migraine Miracle: A Sugar-Free, Gluten-Free, Ancestral Diet to Reduce Inflammation and Relieve Your Headaches for Good. New Harbinger Publications
Images credit: 123RF Photo Stock and Pixabay.com