Originally written for ‘Growing Today’

It’s no coincidence that this article is in the December issue of “Growing Today”.  For many people the stresses and strains of the festive season can be the final straw in the battle to keep body and soul in one piece.

Of course not all headaches are stress related, but a surprisingly high percentage are caused by tension or “muscular contraction” (that’s the technical term).  I’m not an authority on this subject, except perhaps for suffering my fair share of headaches, so I have done some detective work to help me understand the causes and symptoms of headaches.

Like most health problems, a headache is not just a headache, there are numerous inter-connections between body, emotions and lifestyle.  I must admit for me there is a definite connection between feeling overloaded and tired and the onset of a migraine, and although I retreat to bed with a pang of frustration, part of me acknowledges that what I really need is a good rest and some peace and quiet.

Your head has simple needs, an adequate blood supply to the brain, nourishment, the correct balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide and an absence of toxic substances.  This sounds straight forward until you consider how frequently we deprive our poor old head of such basic requirements.

Tension Headaches

Either caused directly by stress or by other conditions which affect the brain by restricting the blood supply.  Usually the neck, head and shoulder muscles contract, restricting the circulation, so not only is the brain not getting its needs met, the waste products of metabolism get trapped in the muscles, forming crystals which are extremely tender.

I’m amazed how often friends and family complain of a headache, and when asked if their neck or shoulders are tight, say no, and yet as soon as I feel their shoulders, they cry out in pain and surprise.  It seems we learn to block out the discomfort, or maybe have not learnt to recognise the symptoms of tension.

There are a number of easy techniques for helping to relax those muscles, which are easy to source in any massage book, but would take me too much room to explain here.  My favourite neck rub is in a book called “The Magic of Massage” by Ouida West.  Pub Century.

A tension headache can be caused by stress as I mentioned, and posture, holding your head uncomfortably while driving, working on the computer, watching TV and so on, can trigger a headache, so too can being cold – hunching up to keep warm.  According to the books I’ve been reading our bodies can’t distinguish between physical and emotional strain and react the same way to both.  I get teased at home for being a sook, because as soon as there’s a bit of tension in the air between family members, my shoulders tighten up, and ten minutes later I’ve got a headache.  Then of course I have to pester someone for a shoulder rub.

I’ve also noticed that I can stress myself quite easily by setting unreasonable time structures for myself, running late, or trying to get through too much in a day.  I’m learning to be more realistic about what I can achieve in a set time and not leave things to the last minute.  I’m surprised how often I stress myself in this manner and how pleasant it can be to mentally readjust my schedule or decide to leave something out altogether – instant relief.  I think on the whole we’re all pretty hard taskmasters to ourselves, Geoff calls it the “Protestant Work Ethic!”  Like most things in life there are two ends of the spectrum, over working and being unable to relax, at the opposite end, finding it hard to get motivated, depression and apathy.  The balancing act required to have an interesting and stimulating life but avoid guilt trips and over commitment is an ongoing process.  Our lives and circumstances change all the time and sometimes we have to put up with more stress than we’re comfortable with by choice, or things we just have to get through.  All this is part of the challenge of being alive, and it helps if you can recognise the first symptoms of stress and minimise its effects – some of the following may help:

  • Go for a walk or a swim – in times of crisis I like to get out into the paddocks behind our place, the sky is so enormous from there that it just seems to put life in perspective.
  • Be kind to yourself – no guilt trips, be realistic about what you can manage – let stuff go.
  • Communication – deal with discord, don’t stew on it.  Being open about how you feel often helps dissipate the feeling.  Admit to feeling nervous, hurt, anxious, frustrated, overloaded etc.
  • Treat yourself:- take time out – especially if you’re working to a deadline, ten minutes out can increase productivity.  Have a cuppa, read a book, listen to music, potter in the garden, whatever you like.
  • Try not to take your worries to bed with you, disrupted sleep is the pits if you’re already stretched, try a hot bath with lavender oil in it, a cup of herbal relaxing tea before bed, NOT coffee.  Take a pen and paper, jot down things you need to remember, or do the next day, so you don’t spend half the night going over them.

I have a Bach flower brew for helping me unwind at night, even if it is a placebo, which I don’t believe, a few drops seems to melt away any troubles and clear my mind.  The mixture includes: – “white chestnut” – for those tormented by persistent worries and unwanted thoughts, and “walnut” for coping with change and settling into a new environment.  You may find a different combination would work for you.

Soft music as you drift off to sleep, seems to relax and occupy the mind so that all the other thoughts are kept at bay.

  • Food – eat regularly, don’t miss meals or use caffeine or tobacco as meal substitutes.  If possible plan ahead for the busy times by having meals in the freezer or buying quick food at the supermarket that can easily be turned into a good meal with the addition of a big salad.
  • Kids – we’ve noticed a “Murphy’s Law” at work in our home, the busier we are, the more demanding the family gets.  Ways around this (depending on the age of your children) include bargaining – explain what you need to do, and if they help by doing such and such you’ll have time for a game of cards or whatever.  We find it less stressful to take time out to spend as a family early on, than deal with ongoing demands and guilt.  Have an activity bag, which comes out on special occasions to occupy the kids. Another “Murphy’s Law” especially with pre-schoolers, is that if you spend half an hour setting up an activity you think will occupy them all afternoon, they’ll play with it ten minutes, and you’ll spend another half an hour cleaning it up.  Don’t ask me why this is – it just is.  Time for a visit to Granny perhaps? Water seems to be one of the few things that occupies a pre-schooler for hours on end.
  • Travelling – plan in advance, take water, dehydration is a cause of headaches, a hangover is a classic example.  Keep your blood sugar levels up, pack snacks, eat regularly.  Allow extra time to get to the airport, bus depot etc, so you don’t arrive stressed before you even get started.
  • Take notice of your body, its surprising how often I think I’m relaxed but my jaw is clenched, or my neck uncomfortable, or my hand is in a tight fist, consciously stretching and relaxing every so often is a good habit.
  • Relaxation techniques, listening to a meditation tape, doing breathing exercises, yoga.

Sinus Headaches:

People with sinus headaches often say they feel like their head is filled with concrete.  As well as this your head feels like its going to burst if your bend forward.  You might have a pain like toothache, a blocked nose and the bones in your face are tender.  Sinuses are air cavities in the bone of the forehead, in the cheek bone on either side and behind the bridge of the nose.  The secretions from the various sinuses drain into the nasal cavity.  If the mucous membrane, which lines the nose becomes inflamed, as in a head cold or an allergic reaction, the tiny sinus openings become blocked.

Changes in air pressure, such as flying, or even driving a mountainous road can cause severe pain.  Causes of sinus problems include food allergies, inhaled allergens, especially pollens, dust, animal hair, tobacco smoke, an infection following a cold, or sometimes after tooth removal, especially upper wisdom teeth. Traditional treatment includes:  decongestant sprays, which are ok in short bursts but shouldn’t be used all the time as your body can create “rebound congestion” and you’ll feel worse than ever.  Antibiotics for infection, best if you can anticipate problems and avoid an infection in the first place, and pain killers, definitely useful sometimes, but bear in mind that just because you can’t feel you headache, it hasn’t gone away, so still treat your body gently.

For some people with persistent sinusitis, a visit to an Ear, Nose & Throat Specialist may be necessary.

There are a number of alternative remedies for sinus problems.

Balm of Gilead, Cedronella canariensis, a shrubby herb, with a clean camphor smell, is great to sniff, sleep with it under your pillow, carry it in your pocket.  It helps to clear the nose and sinuses and make breathing easier.  It can also be used in a steam inhalation.

steam-inhalationherbs-for-steam-inhalation.jpg

The photo below shows a number of herbs for steam inhalation, including Lemon Balm, Balm of Gilead, Pine needles, Rosemary, Lavender &Oil of cloves

I remember as a child my mother used to make an inhalation of Friar’s Balsam and boiling water, for colds.  Making a tent of a towel over the bowl and my head.  Other inhalations include Thyme or Thyme Oil, Oil of Bay, Pine Needles and Clove Oil.

Fresh garlic is a well-known remedy for sinusitis, eat lots or rub the juice on the soles of your feet.  Did you know it takes 3 minutes to travel from your feet until you can taste it in your mouth?  Extra vitamin C, eat lots of citrus, it helps to reduce mucous as well.

Homoeopathic Hepar Sulph, 30c is an excellent remedy for infected sinus and may well save you from antibiotics.

There are also some pressure points which help to unblock the sinuses,  apply firm pressure for a minute or two.  There are points in between the thumb and index finger on each hand, in the fleshy pad.  If you find the right spot it will feel tender, squeeze with thumb and forefinger of the other hand.  There are points just behind the bony ridge below the ears, also where your forehead and nose meet, either side of the nose, roughly where your eyebrows start, and either side of the nostrils.  Sometimes too a head, neck and shoulder rub will help to clear your head.

pressure-points-for-sinusOther self help care includes drinking lots of fluids, but not mucous forming drinks with milk or dairy products.  Keep the atmosphere humid, lots of steam, hot showers etc.  Try sleeping with an extra pillow.

There are some new homoeopathic remedies available now for hayfever and allergies, some made with histamine, these may well be useful and will not have the side effect of making you drowsy or having to take medication regularly.

The Ice Cream Headache

Now this is something new I’ve just learnt.  Sensations from the front of the head, the cheek and the chin are conveyed via divisions of the trigeminal nerve, any pain in front of a line from ear to ear, originates in activity from this nerve.  Eating something very cold, rapidly cools the roof of the mouth and causes referred pain in the forehead or temple.

Vascular Headaches

Where a tension or muscular contraction headache limits the blood supply by constricting blood vessels, vascular headaches are caused by the blood vessels swelling and putting pressure on the nerves. Examples of vascular headaches include migraines, hangovers, MSG headaches, cluster headaches, headaches associated with PMT and menopause.  Alcohol and lying down increase the throbbing sensation.

High blood pressure also causes vascular headaches and requires careful monitoring by your Doctor. Some people also react to foods containing nitrates in the same way, this includes many processed meats and fish.

Getting very hot can also give you a vascular headache.

Cooling down with a cool shower or a swim will help.  Rest with your head well supported, laying flat will only make it worse.  Apply cool cloths to the neck and forehead.  This will help contract the blood vessels, Tiger balm and oil of Olban have a similar effect.

A bath with Epsom salts in it will help you rid your body of excess water.

Migraines:

These are described as occasional severe headaches, usually one sided.  Nausea, blurred vision and visual disturbances are often precursors of this.  Once stricken, the sufferer or migraineur creeps off to a darkened room, requiring absolute peace and quiet and a good sleep.  Migraines can last from an hour or two to several days, frequently leaving the person feeling fragile and drained.

The statistics are that migraines affect one person in ten and three times as many women as men.  (See final paragraph re Jupiter).

Triggers include: stress, low blood sugar, getting over-tired, fluorescent lighting and too much TV, and visits to the hairdressers.  If you’re in the latter group get your hair washed leaning over the sink instead of laying back.  Food triggers include:  in order of their attack producing potential:  chocolate and other concentrated sugar foods, cheese and dairy products, citrus fruit, alcohol, particularly red wine, greasy fried foods, some vegetables (eg onions, broadbeans and sauerkraut) tea, coffee and cola, wheat, yeast extracts, processed meats and shellfish.  Other things to look out for are food additives, yellow colourings and preservatives coded E101 + 210 – 219, 321 (antioxidant) + 621 (mono sodium glutamate), smoking, perfumes and some oral contraceptives.

Lines of defence include:-  Acupuncture, constitutional homoeopathic treatment by a professional. Relaxation techniques – see tension headaches.  Attention to diet, see:  low blood sugar headaches. Anticipating an attack eg pre-menstrual and modifying your lifestyle for the week leading up to it.  Good diet, avoid late nights etc.  Spot the triggers, keeping a diary can help, note eating habits, stress levels, general information.

Feverfew, Chrysanthemum parthenium, taken regularly can help, I read somewhere that it is especially effective for hormonally related migraines.

feverfewIt is a prophylactic, taking several weeks to become effective, so persevere.  Take one large leaf, say 4 – 5 cm of stalk and leaves, or the equivalent.  Eat this in a sandwich with well buttered bread once a day.  Some people develop mouth ulcers when taking the leaves on their own.  Make sure you get the correct plant, it has light green, feathery leaves and daisy flowers, much like a chamomile.  It will grow readily and seed a bit too, in most situations, although it grows best in semi- shade and with an adequate supply of water. Three or four plants should be sufficient, and you can freeze spare leaves in between sheets of lunch paper as well.  It can also be dried and used, or if you want you can buy it in a capsule form.  Avoid taking this herb during pregnancy.

Feverfew’s active ingredients act on the blood platelets, inhibiting the release of serotonin, which is thought to trigger migraines by its effects on blood flow.

Low Blood Sugar Headache:

Glucose provides the energy source for the brain, and when deprived of this, a headache or migraine may result.  Caffeine and nicotine both stimulate the adrenal glands to release glucose into the body, at the same time suppressing the appetite.  By eating sweet foods, your body can get out of balance by releasing insulin to cope with the increased sugar in your system.  This means your blood sugar soars rapidly and plummets equally fast.  This also can trigger an attack.

Children are particularly vulnerable to low blood sugar headaches, often craving sweet foods.  For anyone who suffers low blood sugar problems, ie Hypoglycemia, and headaches triggered from missed meals, here are a few tips:-

  • Eat little and often, providing your body with a sustained source of energy throughout the day.
  • Don’t go more than four or five hours without eating, three hours is the ideal.  This is a good strategy for the 3 days leading up to a period, especially if you suffer from menstrual headaches.
  • Have a high protein breakfast, a cooked eggs and bacon type meal or muesli and yoghurt etc.
  •  Snack on small starchy snacks not sweet foods, sugar free cereal bars, nuts and seeds, crackers, fruit.
  • Lots of unprocessed foods, wholegrains, fruit and vegetables.
  • If you are up extra late or lay in at the weekend, have a snack at the time you’d usually have breakfast or before you go to sleep.
  • Avoid coffee, cola, alcohol and cigarettes especially before meals.
  • Carry a small snack supply with you in case of meal delays.

Symptoms of low blood sugar include:  fatigue, irritability, headaches, migraines, poor concentration, little desire for food, cold hands and feet, inner trembling and anxiety to name just a few.

It’s hard in an article this size to cover the range of headaches we can be susceptible to.  I haven’t managed to include cluster headaches, eye and dental problem headaches or neck problem headaches. Partly I’ve avoided these because they seem to be less in the realm of self help, having more complex causes which often require specialist help.  It may be that if you suffer from one of these headaches some of the remedies covered here can help.

One last inspiring thought, there’s an interesting Greek myth about Jupiter.  The father of all the Gods.  He had a splitting headache, probably after a night of debauchery.  His headache was so extreme that he begged Vulcan, God of the Blacksmiths to split his skull open with an axe (This remedy is not recommended by the author).  Vulcan being a kindly fellow, took pity on Jupiter and performed the delicate operation.  Out stepped Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom.  This myth provided the encouraging thought that headaches are related to high intelligence.

Now doesn’t that make you feel better?

Homoeopathics for Headaches:

  1. Arnica 30c – head feels bruised and aching, occasional stabbing pains, worse from stooping.
  2. Belladonna (30c strength) for throbbing headache, with flushed face and dilated pupils.  Worse in hot sun.
  3. Hypericum 30c – bursting, aching headache, very sensitive scalp, worse in the damp.
  4. Nux vom 30c – for hangovers, over indulgence.  Person irritable, dull and dizzy.  Head feels bruised. Worse first thing in morning.
  5. Ruta grav 30c – headache from tiredness.  Worse from reading, improves with rest.

Herb Teas for Headaches:

Add honey to taste.

Chamomile, mint and catnip tea, 1 tsp each in a pint of boiling water.  A soothing mixture to ease a sick headache.

Meadowsweet Tea:  Filipendula ulmaria.  The flowering tops can be used fresh or dried in a tea.  40 – 50gms in 1 litre of nearly boiling water cover and steep ten minutes.  Contains salicylic acid which is the pain killing component in aspirin.  Meadowsweet tea does not upset the stomach lining though.

Lavender Flower Tea:  As well as lavender oil soothing a headache, a tea made from the flowers eases tension.  ¼ teaspoon dried flowers to ½ cup boiling water.

Rosemary Tea:  A few sprigs in a cup of boiling water, alone or mixed with peppermint, help to clear a fuzzy head or hangover.

Ginger & Caraway:  Seed teas are useful to take for headaches associated menstruation.

Vervain:  Verbena officinalis – a fairly non-descript wild herb, with dark green glossy lobed leaves and tall flowering stalks with tiny mauve flowers.  There are other vervains but the wild one is the most effective medicinally.  Take as mild decoction, 50gms of dried to plant to 1 litre of water.   Cold soak for 10 – 15 minutes, bring to the boil and then leave to infuse for 10 minutes.  Can be taken, a cupful, 3 or 4 times a day, not just for headaches and migraines, but also for digestive disorders and feverish complaints, among other things.

Mustard Foot Bath:

A traditional remedy from the kitchen cupboard.  Supposed to work by drawing heat away from the head.  Lightly crush 4oz – 100gms black and or yellow mustard seeds, or use a small amount of mustard powder.  Pour boiling water over and leave to steep a few minutes, then add cool water to give a comfortable temperature.  Have a good long soak.

Essential Oils:

Lavender – in bath or oil burner.

Melissa – lemon balm, as for lavender.

Basil – in oil burner for migraine.

Neck Stretches:  This is a late addition, I learnt this exercise from Marion Campbell, who is a very skilled Hellerwork practioner in Waipukurau. When I looked back on my history I had suffered from migraines at regular intervals for over 10 years. In a week or two these stretches had got rid of them & have been headache free for a couple of years now. If you suffer from headaches which start as neck tension give this a go, after a couple of weeks I hope you will notice an improvement.

Stand with feet apart & knees slightly bent. Knit your fingers together behind your head & slowly bend forward. Don’t pull on your neck but allow the weight of your hands & head to stretch you forwards.  I found breathing in & then imagining my neck relaxing on the out breath helpful. Hold this position for up to 3 minutes. If at first it feels awkward & inflexible just persevere. Come up slowly from stretch & raise arms in a stretch above head.

IMPORTANT:

The headaches I’m looking at are just every day type headaches which respond to self help treatment. There are however, some symptoms which require attention from your GP.

After injury:  If a headache occurs after a head injury, even some time later, especially if it is accompanied by nausea, drowsiness, irritability, seek medical help straight away.

Unusual headaches:  Not part of the normal headache pattern, ones which get worse and worse in intensity, or where pain relief has no effect.  Sudden onset of headaches.

Prescribed Drugs:  If you are on newly prescribed drugs, headaches can be a side effect.  Your doctor may warn you of this.  If you develop a severe headache, accompanied by a rash or nausea, it could be an allergic reaction.

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