How to Deal with Migraines and Headache Pain
You're sitting at your desk or en route somewhere when a "tension" headache creeps up on you. You know the sort: mild discomfort caused by muscle tightness in the head, scalp or neck areas -- nothing that can't be ignored or fixed with an over-the-counter pain reliever, right? You'd be fine if only that person talking loudly on their cellphone beside you would just hang up, right? Maybe. But if the pain persists or keeps you from going about your day, it might be more than just a tension headache triggered by people or events around you.
If you experience disabling headaches, it's very likely a migraine, says Dr. Christine Lay, a neurologist and the director of the Centre for Headaches at Women's College Hospital in Toronto. "It's a myth that migraine always manifests itself with an aura or pain so extreme sufferers must retreat into a dark room for days at a time. Many migraineurs never have an aura and some only experience moderate disability with their attacks," she says.
And because you're likely to pop a pill for more mild to moderate symptoms of migraine -- a dull ache that may develop into "pounding" or "throbbing" pain that can last for hours -- migraine is classically underdiagnosed, say the experts. So if headaches are becoming an issue for you, don't ignore them and hope they'll go away.
"The first thing you should do is seek a diagnosis for your headache pain so you can rule out any underlying condition and make sure you apply the right treatment," says Dr. Gary Shapero, the medical director of The Shapero Markham Headache and Pain Treatment Centre in Markham, Ont. Once you're equipped with a clear understanding of your pain, it'll be easier to manage your next whopper.
Stage 1: Security measures
You feel fine and dandy...for now. Here's how to keep it that way.
• Identify triggers
Shapero says it's imperative to keep a headache diary to help identify potential triggers (often, certain foods, alcohol or stress) so you can avoid them, if possible. As for those triggers you can't avoid, such as weather changes or hormone fluctuations, you can at least be vigilant about doing everything else right, such as taking a pass on the red wine or chocolate.
• Stay well hydrated
You should drink water throughout the day, not a whole lot once a day, says Lay. "You should also avoid sugary or artificially sweetened drinks, which trigger headaches for many patients."
• Eat breakfast early
"I recommend that people eat in the first 30 to 60 minutes of waking and try to include protein in the meal because protein at breakfast helps 'break' the overnight fast," says Lay. "Carbohydrates wake the brain quickly, but they don't sustain the brain over the course of the day." Protein provides the building blocks for neurotransmitters in the brain, which help balance brain chemistry, and this may reduce the intensity of headaches.
"Exercise, even if it's as simple as taking a walk regularly, will contribute to good health, which seems to reduce the number of headaches that people suffer," says Lay.
• Maintain a good sleep routine
It matters less what time you go to bed; the key is waking up at the same time every day. "A lot of people get a headache on Monday and blame their job, but in fact, it's often a result of having slept in over the weekend," says Lay.
• Practise meditation
Stress is a frequent headache trigger so Lay recommends relaxation strategies that may include meditation to help fortify the body against the threat of attack. "Relaxation techniques or meditation seems to reduce the intensity of the headaches for many people," she says. Look for a workshop in stress-reduction meditation near you.