Blue Cross talks about heading off a headache with essential oils
If you get occasional headaches - especially when you're tired, stressed or hungry - you're not alone. At least 50 million Americans see their doctors for headaches each year, and an unknown number simply treat head pain themselves.
Although headache pain sometimes can be severe, in most cases it's not the result of an underlying disease. The vast majority of headaches are so-called primary headaches. These include migraines, cluster headaches and tension-type headaches. Nearly 90 percent of primary headaches are tension-type.
Tension-type headaches generally produce a diffuse, usually mild to moderate pain over your head. Many people liken the feeling to having a tight band around their head. These headaches may also cause pain in the back of your neck at the base of your skull.
The possible triggers range widely and may include stress, poor posture, depression and even sexual activity. In many cases there's no clear cause. Doctors once believed the cause to be chronic tension in your scalp, neck and jaw muscles. But many researchers have questioned this idea. As a result, The International Headache Society changed the term tension headache to tension-type headache, calling attention to the fact that muscle tension may not be the main cause of this kind of head pain.
Meanwhile, researchers continue to better understand what causes tension-type headaches. Today, headache drugs can provide faster and better pain relief than previously was the case. In addition, a number of preventive, self-care and alternative treatments may help you deal with headache pain.
Headache symptoms in children
Most young people have had some type of headache by the time they reach high school. In fact, even very young children can experience head pain. But if your child is too young to tell you what's wrong, headaches can be difficult to diagnose. That's because the signs of headache pain, such as crying, paleness and vomiting, may also indicate a number of other conditions. Sometimes very young children with headaches will hold their head or bang it on the floor.
Until a few years ago, researchers believed tension-type headache pain was the result of contracted muscles in your face, neck and scalp and an inability to deal with stress. But more recent research has altered this view.
Although much about headaches still isn't understood, researchers now believe changes in serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain may play a role in tension-type headaches. Serotonin is a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that regulates pain messages moving through the trigeminal nerve pathway - a major pathway for pain. Endorphins are natural painkillers produced by your brain and spinal cord.
Doctors don't completely understand what causes changes in these brain chemicals, but there seem to be a number of factors that can trigger tension-type headaches, including poor posture, working in awkward positions, stress, depression and anxiety.
Headaches in children
Chronic tension-type headaches in children are similar to headaches in adults and are often caused by stress, anxiety or depression. Although adults may not always realize it, children can experience tremendous stress - ranging from peer pressure and unreasonable parental expectations to difficulty in school and physical or sexual abuse. And all children, even very young ones, can suffer from depression.
When to seek medical advice
Pain is often one of your body's ways of signaling illness. But headache pain, even when it's severe, usually isn't the result of an underlying disease.
Occasionally, however, headaches may indicate a serious medical condition, such as a brain tumor or rupture of a weakened blood vessel (aneurysm). Always be sure to tell your physician about any headache that concerns you. Even if you have a history of headaches, see your doctor if the pattern changes or your headaches suddenly feel different.
In addition, see your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately if you have any of these warning signs and symptoms:
Abrupt, severe headache, often like a thunderclap
Headache with a fever, stiff neck, rash, mental confusion, seizures, double vision, weakness, numbness or speaking difficulties
Headache after a head injury, especially if it gets worse
Chronic, progressive headache that worsens after coughing, exertion, straining or a sudden movement
Onset of new headache pain after age 40
Call your doctor if your child has head pain that's severe or that causes him or her to miss school or other activities. Children who are too young to tell you what's wrong may cry and hold their head to indicate severe pain.
Screening and diagnosis
If you're like most people, you probably don't go to your doctor with a headache. In many cases a couple of pain relievers, a few moments to relax and a good night's sleep are enough to give you relief.
If you have chronic or recurrent headaches, your physician may try to pinpoint the type and cause of your headache using these approaches:
Getting a description of your pain. Your doctor can learn a lot about your headaches from your description of the type of pain, including its severity, location, frequency and duration, and any other symptoms you may have.
Conducting tests. If you have unusual or complicated headaches, your physician may order tests to rule out serious causes of head pain, such as a tumor or an aneurysm. Two common tests used to image your brain are computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. A CT scan is a diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a series of computer-directed X-rays to provide a comprehensive view of your brain. An MRI doesn't use X-rays. Instead, it combines magnestism, radio waves and computer technology to produce clear images/helios of your brain.
Asking you to keep a headache calendar. One of the most helpful things you can do is keep a headache calendar for at least a 2-month period. Each time you get a headache, jot down a description of the pain, including how severe it is, where it's located and how long it lasts. Also note any medications you take. A headache calendar can offer valuable clues that may help your doctor diagnose your particular kind of headache and discover possible headache triggers.
Rest, ice packs, a warm compress or a long, hot shower may be all you need to relieve an occasional headache. If these methods don't help, you may get relief from an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever, such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others). Try to take them only when necessary and then use the smallest dose needed to relieve your pain. Overusing pain medications can actually cause chronic daily headaches. In addition, aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can have serious side effects, including stomach or intestinal pain or bleeding and ulcers.
Check with your doctor before giving any headache medication to children. If taken in large doses or for long periods of time, acetaminophen can cause serious liver damage. And don't give aspirin to children under age 16. Aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare, but potentially fatal condition.
Although medications can provide temporary relief, lifestyle changes are ultimately the best way to combat tension-type headaches. The following tips may help:
Exercise regularly. Regular aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming or biking, can help reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches. Exercise relieves stress, relaxes your muscles and increases the levels of one of your body's natural stress relievers, beta-Endorphin. Yoga, massage, stretching and posture classes also can be extremely helpful in preventing tension-type headaches. If you already have a headache, exercise can help relieve the pain. In some cases, however, exercise may bring on a headache, so check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.
Manage stress. In addition to regular exercise, techniques such as biofeedback training and relaxation therapy can help reduce stress. Biofeedback teaches you to control certain body responses that help reduce pain. During a biofeedback session, you're connected to devices that monitor and give you feedback on body functions such as muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure. You then learn how to reduce muscle tension and slow your heart rate and breathing yourself. The goal of biofeedback is to help you enter a relaxed state so that you can better cope with your pain. Ask your doctor whether such a program might help you.
Try some of the following suggestions to see which work best for you:
Heat or ice packs. You may find that an ice pack held to your forehead brings almost immediate relief. Wrap ice packs in a cloth to protect your skin. Use a heating pad set on low, a hot water bottle or a hot towel to relax tight neck and shoulder muscles.
A hot bath or shower. A hot bath or shower helps relax muscle tension. You might want to try applying an ice pack to your head while taking a hot bath.
A stress break. If you're in a stressful situation, taking a break may help.
Sleep. Sometimes the best cure for a headache is to sleep it off.
Living with chronic pain can be extremely difficult. In addition to the physical symptoms, chronic pain can make you anxious or depressed. Ultimately, it may affect your relationships with friends and family, your productivity at work and the overall quality of your life.
You may find that talking to a counselor or therapist can help you cope with the effects of chronic pain. Or you may find encouragement and understanding in a headache support group. Although support groups aren't for everyone, they can be good sources of information. Group members often know about the latest treatments and tend to share their own experiences. If you're interested, your doctor may be able to recommend a group in your area.
Complementary and alternative medicine
The following nontraditional therapies may help if you suffer from chronic headache pain:
Acupuncture. In 1998, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a long-awaited statement on acupuncture. Among other benefits, NIH researchers found that acupuncture could provide relief from chronic headache pain. Acupuncture practitioners treat you using extremely thin, disposable needles that generally cause little pain or discomfort. The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture Web site provides referrals to medical doctors who use acupuncture in their practices.
Massage. Massage is a wonderful way to reduce stress and relieve tension. It's especially effective for relieving tight, tender muscles in the back of your head, neck and shoulders. For some people, it may also provide relief from headache pain.
Essential oils. Some studies have shown that a salve made from ginger, peppermint and wintergreen oils may help relieve tension-type headaches. You may get relief simply by smelling the salve, or you may want to rub it on the nape of your neck and your temples.