In ancient Greece, headaches were considered powerful afflictions, victims prayed for relief from Asclepius the god of medicine and if pain continued, a medical practitioner would perform the best known remedy, drilling a small hole in the skull to drain supposedly infected blood, this dire technique called trepanation often replaced the headache with a more permanent condition. Fortunately doctors today don’t resort to power tools to cure headaches but we still have a lot to learn about this ancient ailment, today we’ve classified headaches into two types, primary headaches and secondary headaches, the former are not symptomatic of an underlying disease injury or condition, they are the condition but we’ll come back to them in a minute because while primary headaches account for 50% of reported cases, we actually know much more about secondary headaches, these are caused by other health problems with triggers ranging from dehydration and caffeine withdrawal to head and neck injury and heart disease doctors have classified over 150 diagnoseable types, all with different potential causes, symptoms and treatments but we’ll take just one common case, a sinus infection as an example, the sinuses are a system of cavities that spread behind our foreheads, noses and upper cheeks, when our sinuses are infected, our immune response heats up the area roasting the bacteria and in flaming the cavities well past their usual size.
The engorged sinuses put pressure on the cranial arteries and veins as well as muscles in the neck and head, their pain receptors called nociceptors trigger in response cueing the brain to release a flood of neuro peptides that inflamed the cranial blood vessels, swelling and heating up the head. This discomfort paired with hypersensitive head muscles creates the sore throbbing pain of a headache, not all headache pain comes from swelling tense muscles and inflamed sensitive nerves caused varying degrees of discomfort in each headache but all cases are reactions to some cranial irritant while the cause is clear in secondary headaches, the origins of primary headaches remain unknown, scientists are still investigating potential triggers for the three types of primary headaches, recurring long-lasting migraines, intensely painful rapid-fire cluster headaches and most common of all the tension headache as the name suggests tension headaches are known for creating the sensation of a tight band squeezed around the head. These headaches increase the tenderness of the para cranial muscles which then painfully pulse with blood and oxygen patients report stress dehydration and hormone changes as triggers but these don’t fit the symptoms quite right. For example in dehydration headaches, the frontal lobe actually shrinks away from the skull creating forehead swelling that doesn’t match the location of the pain in tension.
Headaches scientists have theories for what the actual causes are ranging from spasming blood vessels to overly sensitive nociceptors but no one knows for sure, meanwhile most headache research is focused on more severe primary headaches. Migraines are recurring headaches which create a vice-like sensation on the skull that can last from four hours to three days in 20% of cases, these attacks are intense enough to overload the brain with electrical energy which hyper excites sensory nerve endings, this produces hallucinations called auras which can include seeing flashing lights and geometric patterns and experiencing tingling sensations.
Cluster headaches, another primary headache type cause burning, stabbing bursts of pain behind one hot leading to a red eye constricted pupil and drooping eyelid, what can be done about these conditions which dramatically affect many people’s quality of life, tension headaches and most secondary cases can be treated with over-the-counter pain medications such as anti-inflammatory drugs that reduce cranial swelling and many secondary headache triggers like dehydration, eye strain and stress can be proactively avoided. Migraines and cluster headaches are more complicated and we haven’t yet discovered reliable treatments that work for everyone but thankfully pharmacologists and neurologists are hard at work cracking these pressing mysteries that weigh so heavily on our minds.
Tips to Address Triggers and Avoid Headaches
1.) Reduce stress
This may sound impossible in today’s day and age where we are constantly connected, always on the go, and love to talk about how busy we are. But, if you really want to know how to stop a headache in its tracks, you need to find ways to manage and reduce the stress in your life. Avoid overcommitting your schedule, consider trying yoga or meditation, or concentrate on a hobby that you find soothing and relaxing. Anything that makes you feel calmer and less stressed out will contribute to decreasing the frequency of your headaches.
2.) Change diet
There are many aspects of diet and nutrition that could be related to headaches. For some people, foods with certain additives or ingredients are a trigger such as chocolate or some types of cheese. For others it may be alcohol, especially red wine. Still others do not drink enough water and have headaches caused by dehydration. Food allergies or sensitivities can also play a role. Consider eliminating food or drink that you suspect to be key triggers from your diet one at a time in order to find the culprit. In general, keep in mind the importance of eating clean and nutritious meals, getting regular exercise, and staying hydrated. Even simple changes can be a game-changer when it comes to headache prevention.
3.) Eliminate caffeine
While there are those who swear by caffeine as one of the more effective headache remedies (and it is even a key ingredient in popular over-the-counter migraine medication), the American Migraine Foundation recommends that migraine sufferers significantly reduce or completely eliminate their caffeine consumption. Although caffeine itself is unlikely to be the sole cause of chronic headaches, it is a risk factor and one that is relatively easy to address. It is important to note that, if you are a heavy coffee drinker, when you cut out caffeine you may experience withdrawal-induced headaches at first, but they will go away within a few days.
4.) Get some sleep
Rather than catching just one more episode of your favorite show on Netflix, going to bed a little earlier and ensuring that you get a solid eight hours of sleep can work wonders in terms of headache prevention. Try to maintain a consistent sleep/wake schedule so that your body gets used to going to bed and waking up at the same time every day regardless of whether it is a work day or the weekend or vacation.
5.) Quit smoking
While there is no proven causal link between smoking and headaches, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence and statistics that point to a connection. For example, studies have found that 90% of people who suffer from chronic cluster headaches smoke. Findings like these indicate that smoking may play a role in headaches, and quitting smoking could help reduce the number of headaches you experience every month.
6.) Take preventative medications
Particularly for migraine sufferers, sometimes the best way to prevent frequent headaches is to take daily medication. Types of medications may include beta-blockers, antidepressants, or anticonvulsants, and while they may not work for everyone, studies indicate that people who could be helped by them are not necessarily taking these medications. If you experience frequent and debilitating headaches, consider speaking to your doctor about trying a daily, preventive medication.
All of the tips above can also apply to the headaches that some women get at particular points during their menstrual cycle. The hormonal fluctuations that happen just before the period starts is often the cause of this type of headache. For some women, the suggestions above may help. Others may require other types of intervention including hormonal birth control.