Most people are familiar with the term migraine. It refers to a throbbing headache occurring on one or both sides of the head, usually associated with nausea, light sensitivity (photophobia) and sound sensitivity (phonophobia). Another common headache is called a tension headache. This type of headache is usually associated with a tight, band-like pressure sensation around the head. These two headaches are the most common types that physicians deal with. When they persist for 3 or more months, we refer to them as chronic.
In our culture, where we are used to the knee jerk reaction of giving a medication for every problem, you might equate headaches with a Tylenol or Advil deficiency. Sometimes we see patients who literally swallow these pills like candy in order to get through life. While medications are wonderful for pain relief, they do little to get to the root cause of headaches. What’s more, they can cause headaches. If this is the case, the more you take, the worse your headaches get.
Acute migraines generally respond well to a combination of an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen (Advil) or aspirin, a pain killer such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and caffeine. If these don’t work, a triptan drug such as sumatriptan (Imitrex) or eletriptan (Relpax) can often help. Unfortunately these drugs don’t help all the time, and often only give marginal relief. The consequence is that people end up taking even more. The result – a phenomenon known as rebound headaches. In this case, the medication causes another headache, usually within 24 hours. And so the cycle continues. Similarly, tension type headaches often respond well to medications such as Fiorinal, which contain butalbital. These medications are also notorious for causing rebound headaches.
So, if you are suffering from chronic headaches, look at the medications you are taking as a potential cause. They could be one of the culprits. If you have chronic headaches, you may want to speak to your doctor about putting you on some kind of preventative medication.
We suggest going even further. Pay attention to your lifestyle, your stress levels, your diet and other factors that can lead to chronic headaches. Learn non-pharmaceutical interventions to take your headache away – such as relaxation and meditation techniques, or try physical modalities such as massage, chiropractic, or acupuncture.
Ultimately, we want you to think of your headaches as a barometer of how you are doing. Learn to use them to discover how to treat your body better, not just as a trigger to take more medication.
By Dr. Steve Amoils