In today’s high-pressure world, headaches are easily one of the most common maladies out there. Despite the fact that it poses no real threat to the health of a person, no one enjoys the feeling of a throbbing head, especially when there’s work to be done. So what exactly causes this dreadful sensation and how can we guard against it?
The most common type of headaches experienced by people are called tension headaches. Also known as stress headaches, they are the result of the contraction of the muscles between the head and the neck, resulting in the manifestation of a dull pain experienced across the head. Severity of pain can range from mild to moderate, and symptoms can persist for up to a few days.
As its name implies, tension headaches can be caused by stress. More specifically, lifestyle factors such as poor posture, insufficient rest, extended periods of either physical or mental stress, consumption of certain medication and poor dietary habits can lead to the muscles in the head and neck sending out pain signals to both sides of the head. This is why headaches often make you feel like there’s a constrictive band around your head.
According to Dr Joyce McSwan, a clinical consultant pharmacist and recipent of the 2013 Australian Innovative Pharmacist award, there are a number of misconceptions surrounding headaches that continue to persist amongst the public, which tends to complicate or hampen the treatment process:
1. Myth: All headaches are psychological
Most headaches are in fact triggered by an underlying physical cause (as alluded to in the above).
2. Myth: Only adults get headaches
Children are equally susceptible to headaches. The only difference is that they usually don’t make it known, especially the young ones.
3. Myth: All headaches are the same
Despite how many headaches share the same trigger (i.e. stress), there are in fact over 30 different types of headaches, which are divided into primary and secondary types.
It is also important to be able to distinguish the difference between a migraine and a headache. “Migraines are a neurogological disorder characterised by imbalances in brain chemistry,” says Dr McSwan. “It tends to range from moderate to very severe throbbing pain at the front or side of the head. It can be unrelelnting and carry on for days.” Unlike tension headaches, migraines are usually forecasted by what is known as the “aura” – visual, auditory, psychological or physiological symptoms of changing neurological effects and reactions in the brain.
When it comes to treatment, most people tend to opt for painkillers. The fact that such medication is easily available over the counter at drugstores and neighbourhood pharmacies make this a very convenient approach to addressing headache-related pain. However, Dr McSwan cautions against developing an addiction to painkillers.
“It is possible to be over-reliant on pain relievers as the only way of managing pain. Pain relievers are designed to reduce the intensity of pain to achieve function. It is therefore important for the pain sufferer to have the right expectation of what they are expecting the relief to do. Keeping within the dose range that is indicated on the packaging is a good guide and taking it correctly ensures that the medication can work effectively.”
She adds, “If the medication is ineffectively managing the pain after the maximum dose has been reached then exceeding the dose is not safe or better. Consulting with a pharmacist or doctor is important as there could be better or more targeted treatments for the type of pain experienced. The pain experience is usually contributed by many factors, so addressing underlying cause is important.”
“Overall, identifying the pain type and finding the right treatment options will usually make sure that the right pain reliever is being taken so that higher doses are not needed. If you have self-guided your treatment without success then a health professional should be consulted with.”
Aside from pharmaceuticals, more holistic alternatives can be considered for pain management as well. Placing a cooling pack over one’s forehead and eyes can help to reduce inflammation and subsequently ease the pain. Massages can also help to improve circulation and relieve tension, while neck exercises can help to stretch and strengthen the muscles.
They do say that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, so Dr McSwan recommends taking these preventive steps to avoid many common headache triggers:
- Maintain good posture, and move around during the day. Make sure your neck isn't remaining stiff and that you're moving it around if you're doing desk work. Also, take your eyes away from the computer every so often to avoid eyestrain.
- Stay consistent. Keep a regular schedule, and don't vary your diet or your waking, sleeping, and exercise routines too greatly.
- Get an appropriate amount of sleep. Either too much or too little shut-eye can leave your head pounding, so make sure you get a steady eight hours each night.
- Stick to a healthy diet and exercise regimen. Healthy foods and regular exercise help ward off headaches. Never skip meals, and have a small, healthy snack between meals so that you don't get too hungry.
- Drink water. Dehydration can lead to headaches, so drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Manage stress. Stress can build up and cause your head to pound, so find ways to deal with it. Take up a hobby, exercise, try yoga, and do some deep breathing when you feel stress creeping in.
Take these tips to heart (and head) and not only will you be happier for it, but you’ll be healthier overall as well!