This Issue

Headaches: A universal pain in the neck

Chronic condition may need stronger relief

Relax, take a deep breath …
stop that headache

Help your doctor help you … and keep a headache diary

Q & A

A closer look


Triggers

Although it is not always possible to prevent a headache, it may be possible to reduce its frequency by determining and avoiding what cause it. Triggers are factors that spark a headache. Most triggers arerelated to migraines but may be related to cluster and tension-type headaches as well.

  • Change in the weather, particularly heat and moisture

  • Fatigue

  • Emotional stress

  • Lack of sleep or too much sleep

  • Bright or blinking lights

  • Loud noises

  • Strong smells, such as perfumes

  • Alcohol, particularly red wine

  • Smoking

  • Certain foods — Chocolate, caffeine, aged cheeses, processed meats

Surprising headache triggers

Triggers

Not just any headache!


Most headaches are annoying inconveniences, but some may signal a serious condition — such as meningitis or stroke — that require prompt medical attention. People may complain of the “worst headache ever.”

  • A severe headache with sudden onset

  • Headaches that first develop after the age of 50

  • Headaches that increase with coughing or abrupt movement

  • Persistent headache after a blow to the head

  • Headache pain that feels like an explosion or thunderclap

  • Headache pain that gets worse and won’t go away

  • Headache accompanied by any of these symptoms

    • stiff neck and fever

    • severe pain when bending over

    • decreased alertness or mental confusion

    • persistent, severe vomiting

  • Headaches accompanied by neurological symptoms

    • visual disturbances

    • slurred speech

    • weakness or numbness on one side

    • seizures

Which one is it?

Not just any headache!

Help your doctor help you …
… and keep a headache diary

In order to pinpoint your type of headache, which will help to diagnose and treat it correctly, pay close attention when it surfaces.

Keep track of:

  • the date of each headache
  • the time it started and the time it ended
  • type of pain and intensity on a scale of 1 to 10
  • where the pain is centered
  • foods and beverages you had during the last day
  • amount of sleep and caffeine
  • stress level
  • any sensitivity to light, sound or odors
  • the date of your menstrual cycle if you are female
  • weather conditions
  • type of treatment and its effect
  • your thoughts and actions shortly before the pain began

Discuss any frequent headaches with your doctor, who can recommend appropriate treatment.

Call your doctor immediately if you experience a very severe, sudden, or explosive headache (especially after a head injury or if your headache is accompanied by stiff neck and fever, weakness, or difficulty speaking or seeing, which could signal more serious problems, such as meningitis or stroke).

View the full issue

Quick Links
[x close]

[ Printable View ]

A closer look


A contradiction in terms

Do pain relievers treat a headache,
or cause a headache?

Yes

Regular use of pain relievers — including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen — can actually cause headaches. “Rebound” or medication-overuse headaches can occur when the medication is taken more than two to three days a week or more than the recommended dosage. For reasons not fully understood, a drop in the level of drugs in the blood precipitates another headache, which in turn precipitates another dose. The cycle continues resulting in chronic daily headaches with more severe and frequent pain. Rebound headaches can occur with prescription drugs as well.

Relax, take a deep breath …
stop that headache

Got a headache? Who doesn’t? The economy is still shaky. The first day of school is too far off for working parents. And the jackhammer down the street — or that heated argument moments ago — probably isn’t helping either.

If you know which type of headache you have there are many strategies you can try to stop the pain. “Be patient: it can take time to sort out which option or combination works best. Usually, it’s safe to start with headache self-care strategies that don’t require a visit to the doctor or a trip to the drugstore. If headaches persist or are severe, you need to discuss the problem with your doctor,” said Dr. Jan Cook, medical director for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.

Help your doctor
help you …
… and keep a headache diary

In order to pinpoint your type of headache, which will help to diagnose and treat it correctly, pay close attention when it surfaces.

Keep track of:

  • the date of each headache
  • the time it started and the time it ended
  • type of pain and intensity on a scale of 1 to 10
  • where the pain is centered
  • foods and beverages you had during the last day
  • amount of sleep and caffeine
  • stress level
  • any sensitivity to light, sound or odors
  • the date of your menstrual cycle if you are female
  • weather conditions
  • type of treatment and its effect
  • your thoughts and actions shortly before the pain began

Discuss any frequent headaches with your doctor, who can recommend appropriate treatment.

Call your doctor immediately if you experience a very severe, sudden, or explosive headache (especially after a head injury or if your headache is accompanied by stiff neck and fever, weakness, or difficulty speaking or seeing, which could signal more serious problems, such as meningitis or stroke).

Relieving headaches without medications

Five non-medicated approaches to ease the pain include the following:

Slow the full-court press

When a headache strikes, take time to unwind. Use your fingertips to lightly massage tight muscles on the back of your neck, scalp, and shoulders. Moist heat at the back of the neck may help, too. Next, close your eyes and breathe deeply and evenly for several minutes. Mentally count from one to three as you inhale, pause for a moment, then count from three to one as you exhale. If possible, rest for a while with your eyes shut and your head propped comfortably on a pillow.

Especially helpful for: Tension-type headaches

Hush the noise, dim the lights


Rest in a quiet, dark room with a cool washcloth or ice pack on your forehead. Try to sip fluids, especially to replace fluids lost through vomiting.

Especially helpful for: Migraine headaches

Adjust your lifestyle

Get enough sleep. Eat a healthy diet and try skipping certain foods that can trigger the headache. Carve out time for daily meditation or other forms of relaxation to buffer stress. Quit smoking, avoid red wine and limit other alcohol. Be active: your health will be better all around and you’ll feel less anxious and stressed.

Especially helpful for: Tension-type, migraine and cluster headaches

Practice yoga

Yoga, which means to unite in Sanskrit, is an Eastern form of exercise that “unites” mind, body and spirit to produce a state of balance and well-being. Yoga combines deep breathing with various body postures to promote relaxation and reduction in stress.

To learn some basic poses, click here

Especially helpful for: Tension-type and migraine headaches

Meditate

The deep, even breathing and sustained concentration meditation requires relaxes the body and brain. When practiced regularly, meditation helps ease many stress-related health problems. Consider a meditation class or CD, or follow the steps described in “Meditation” under A Healthy Me on the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts website (http://www.ahealthyme.com/topic/topic13868).

Take a break. Click here.

Especially helpful for: Tension-type and migraine headaches

When is medication needed?

Headaches can be connected to health problems like colds or flu, or can occur independently. Certain types of headaches are hereditary — that is, they run in the family. So if your mother often had migraines, you may have them, too. Some headaches may occur repeatedly for days or weeks — boom, boom, boom — then disappear for a long stretch, only to start up again at a later date in time. People can have more than one kind of headache at the same time (a problem known as mixed headache).

Forty-five million Americans suffer chronic headaches, reports the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Non-medicated approaches alone may not do enough to quell certain headaches, especially migraines and cluster headaches.

Over-the-counter pain-relievers ibuprofen (Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol) or naproxen sodium (Aleve) can help, though it’s best not to rely on these too often. Aspirin is another self-care choice (check with your doctor first since some people shouldn’t take it). Children should never be given aspirin due to a rare, life-threatening condition called Reye’s syndrome.

Like any other medical problem, if your headaches are severe, contact your doctor. Prescription and over-the-counter medications should not be overused. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle — eating properly, exercising, and sleeping seven to eight hours a night — is key to avoiding many health problems, including headaches.

For more information on headaches, headache relief or headache prevention, talk to your doctor.