Oh my aching head

The changing seasons bring a lot of headaches as we dodge and weave our way through the holidays, overcrowded stores, and jammed parking lots. But families, shopping and money issues aside, millions of Americans suffer from the kind of debilitating headaches that aren’t just caused by annoying relatives and obnoxious shoppers.

Headaches tend to be hereditary — four out of five headache sufferers report family histories. Other common elements that can cause or worsen headache symptoms include weather and stress, a variety of foods and medications, fatigue, lack of exercise, skipping meals, and consuming alcohol, caffeine and tobacco products.

Most headaches are tension headaches. These headaches tend to happen again and again, especially if you are under stress. They are not usually a sign of something serious. But they can be very painful and hard to live with, and can last from 30 minutes to several days.

If you have a headache on 15 or more days each month over a three-month period, you may have chronic tension headaches. This type of headache can lead to stress and depression, which in turn can lead to more headaches. It often is caused by changes in brain chemicals. About four out of every 100 people in the United States get chronic tension headaches. Symptoms can start in childhood, but they are more likely to occur during middle age.

Tension headaches are one of the most common types of headaches. They can be triggered by things such as stress, depression, hunger, and muscle strain. Tension headaches may come on suddenly or slowly. Symptoms of tension headaches include constant pain or pressure on both sides of your head, and aching pain at your temples or the back of your head and neck.

This is different from migraine headaches, which usually cause throbbing pain and start on one side of your head. Pain from a tension headache is usually not severe and does not get in the way of your work or social life. But for some people, the pain is very bad or lasts a long time, and the headaches tend to come back, especially when you are under stress.

Changing weather stimulates headaches

Experts believe that people who get frequent headaches have a greater sensitivity to changes in the environment. They also have a lower threshold to the pain response, which may be an inherited sensitivity.

In a recent survey by the National Headache Foundation, three out of every four respondents said that weather triggered their headache pain. Specific weather triggers include changes in humidity and temperature, storms, and extremely dry or dusty conditions.

Many of these conditions cause or contribute to sinus headaches, as well as migraines.  Typical sinus headache symptoms include pain and pressure around the sinuses in the forehead, especially behind and between the eyes, and above the nose. These areas may be tender to the touch.

However, if headache pain is your only symptom, you probably don’t have a sinus headache. A sinus headache is usually accompanied by nasal stuffiness or discharge, cough and sore throat, and fatigue. Sinus conditions can be treated through pain medications, and by prescription and over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants.

Migraines — the mother of all headaches

Most people with migraines have common migraines. This type of migraine causes a throbbing pain on one side of the head. The pain is moderate to severe and gets worse with normal physical activity. You also may have nausea and vomiting and may feel worse around light and sound. The headache lasts four to 72 hours if it is not treated.

Some people with classic migraines get an aura up to 30 minutes before they have a migraine. Symptoms of the aura include seeing wavy lines, flashing lights, or objects that look distorted. Other symptoms include tingling or a “pins-and-needles” feeling. Also, many women have migraines around their menstrual cycle. These occur a few days before, during, or right after their period. The symptoms are the same as those of common or classic migraines.

A variety of foods and beverages can trigger migraines. These include foods that are aged, such as cheeses, meats and wines. Also, processed foods often contain a variety of food additives such as nitrates and nitrites which dilate blood vessels. Additionally, while consumption of alcohol actually increases blood flow to your brain, the metabolic process for breaking down alcohol releases chemicals which contribute to headaches.

Solutions for dealing with a severe headache

Anyone suffering from regular or chronic headaches should see their physician. There are a variety of prescription medications available that can be taken at the first signs of onset, limiting duration and intensity. There also are steps you can take to help deal more effectively with headaches, or to prevent them from escalating. These include:

  • Seek a calm environment. At the first sign of a migraine or pressure headache, retreat from your usual activities, if possible.
  • Turn off the lights. Migraines often increase sensitivity to light and sound. Relax in a dark, quiet room. Sleep if you can.
  • Try temperature therapy. Apply hot or cold compresses to your head or neck. Ice packs have a numbing effect, which may dull the sensation of pain. Hot packs and heating pads can relax tense muscles; warm showers or baths may have a similar effect.
  • Use proper medications. Many medications contain elements that actually can make your headache worse. There are a variety of medicines that are effective for treating pain and headache symptoms, but always talk with your physician or pharmacist before self-medicating.
  • Massage painful areas. Apply gentle pressure to your scalp or temples. Alleviate muscle tension with a shoulder or neck massage.
  • Drink a caffeinated beverage. In small amounts, caffeine can relieve migraine pain in the early stages or enhance the pain-reducing effects of acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) and aspirin. Be careful, however. Drinking too much caffeine too often can lead to withdrawal headaches later on.
  • Unwind at the end of the day. Listen to soothing music, soak in a warm bath or read a favorite book. But watch what you eat and drink before bedtime. Intense exercise, heavy meals, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol can interfere with sleep.
  • Sleep well. Migraines and pressure headaches may keep you from falling asleep or wake you up at night. Likewise, many headaches are often triggered by a poor night’s sleep. Try to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day, and if you nap, take short naps (under 30 minutes) that won’t interfere with nighttime sleep.
  • Exercise regularly. During physical activity, your body releases certain chemicals that block pain signals to your brain. These chemicals also help alleviate anxiety and depression, which can make migraines worse. If your doctor agrees, choose any exercise you enjoy. Walking, swimming and cycling are often good choices. But it’s important to start slowly. Exercising too vigorously can trigger migraines.

Finally, doctors recommend keeping a headache diary, which may help you determine what triggers your headaches. Note when the pain or symptoms start, what you were doing at the time, how long they last and what, if anything, provides relief. Eventually you may be able to prevent migraines or other headaches by changing patterns in your daily life.

# # #

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Is it time to see a therapist?

The holidays and cold wintery months bring many types of pressures that can cause stress, irritability, sleeplessness, anger, and depression. Additionally, isolation, family dynamics, work and financial hardships strain us in many insidious ways. When you throw in the challenges of day-to-day life, it can result in depression and anxiety.

Many of us have the tools and resources to deal with these issues patiently and reasonably. But for others, daily stresses accumulate to unhealthy levels and can result in unpleasant and sometimes dangerous behaviors. Situational or cumulative triggers affect us in a variety of ways. But it becomes far more complicated when you add to the mix chemical imbalances or deep-rooted psychological problems that may be undiagnosed or untreated.

Seeking help from a therapist is a healthy choice. Unfortunately, it’s often avoided due to the stigma of therapy, lack of health insurance, or financial resources. However, contrary to popular perception, you don’t have to be “falling apart” to seek help. Most people can benefit from therapy at some point in our lives. Many of us turn to family and friends as support groups, but that doesn’t always provide the answers we seek.

When things start to become unmanageable or worries and pressures start redefining us, affect performance or control our actions, it’s time for assistance. Support can be found through Employee Assistance Programs at work or through school, or by talking with social workers, counselors and other providers. We can visit walk-in clinics or hospitals, speak with our physicians, or seek access through the panels of behavioral health professionals and programs available in every community.

We also turn to therapists for many positive reasons such as improving the overall quality of our lives, career or interests. Sometimes it’s for help with grief or trauma, but it can be to help us learn how to face situations that may be preventing us from reaching personal goals.

Whether the need for therapy is short-or longer-term, there are a variety of different therapeutic options to pursue. However, it all starts with determining whether or not we should see a therapist.  Here are some common catalysts, concerns and behaviors:

  • Feeling sad, angry or otherwise “not yourself.” Uncontrollable sadness, anger or hopelessness may be signs of a mental health issue that can improve with treatment. If you’re eating or sleeping more or less than usual, withdrawing from family and friends, or just feeling “off,” talk to someone before serious problems develop that can have a significant impact on your quality of life. If these feelings escalate to the point that you question whether life is worth living or you have thoughts of death or suicide, reach out for help right away.
  • Bottom of Form
    • Abusing drugs, alcohol, or food to cope. When you turn outside yourself to a substance or behavior to help you feel better, your coping skills probably need adjustment. If you feel unable to control these behaviors or you can’t stop despite negative consequences in your life, you may be struggling with addictive or compulsive behavior that requires treatment.
    • You’ve lost someone or something important to you. Grief can be a long and difficult process to endure without the support of an expert. While not everyone needs counseling during these times, there is no shame in needing a little help to get through the loss of a loved one, a divorce, significant breakup, or the loss of a job, especially if you’ve experienced multiple losses in a short period of time.
    • Something traumatic has happened. If you have a history of abuse, neglect or other trauma that you haven’t fully dealt with, or if you find yourself the victim of a crime or accident, chronic illness or some other traumatic event, the earlier you talk to someone, the faster you can learn healthy ways to cope.
    • You can’t do the things you like to do. Have you stopped doing the activities you ordinarily enjoy? Many people find that painful emotions and experiences keep them from getting out, having fun and meeting new people. This is a red flag that something is wrong in your life.
    • Everything you feel is intense. Feeling overcome with anger or sadness on a regular basis could indicate an underlying issue. Also, when an unforeseen challenge appears, do you immediately assume the worst-case-scenario will take place? This intense form of anxiety, in which every worry is super-sized and treated as a realistic outcome, can be truly debilitating.
    • You have unexplained and recurrent headaches, stomach-aches or a rundown immune system. When we’re emotionally upset, it can affect our bodies. Research confirms that stress can manifest itself in the form of a wide range of physical ailments, from a chronically upset stomach to headaches, frequent colds or even a diminished sex drive.
    • You’re getting bad feedback at work. Changes in work performance are common among those struggling with emotional or psychological issues. You might feel disconnected from your job, even if it used to make you happy. Aside from changes in concentration and attention, you might get negative feedback from managers or co-workers that the quality of your work is slipping. This could be a sign that it’s time to talk to a professional.
    • Your relationships are strained. If you find yourself feeling unhappy during interactions with loved ones, family or friends on a regular basis, you might make a good candidate for therapy. Oftentimes, those closest to us recognize changes in our behaviors that we might not be ready to personally acknowledge — when these changes are pointed out to us, they’re worth considering.

Seeing a therapist doesn’t mean a lifetime obligation. A study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found that most people feel better within seven to 10 visits. In another study, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 88 percent of therapy-goers reported improvements after just one session.

Although severe mental illness may require more intensive intervention, most people benefit from short-term, goal-oriented therapy to address a specific issue or interpersonal conflict, get out of a rut, or make a major life decision. The sooner you choose to get help, the faster you can return to enjoying life to its fullest.

# # #

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Bacon-wrapped scallop or a carrot? Why not both?!

As you’re about to dip your lemon square into the chocolate fondue, stop for a moment and contemplate what you’re doing. Yes, it’s going to taste fantastically yummy, and you’ll love every bite. But you’re probably going to feel guilty later, especially if you washed it down with some eggnog and cheesecake. Plus, it’s likely going right to your hips and arteries and, without doubt, will make losing weight come January that much tougher. Guilt is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

Well, no, actually it isn’t! In fact, placating our guilt is one of the reasons we overindulge, so finding alternative nutritional options and setting achievable goals are critical.

Awareness and compromise are factors within our control. American adults on average gain between two and seven pounds every holiday season. It’s easy to see how with wall-to-wall parties, sweet treats, alcohol consumption, and gatherings with friends, family and co-workers. But nobody’s suggesting you have to starve or deny yourself some enjoyment; moderation and common sense can prevail, and you’ll still have a great time!

Setting the simple goal of trying to maintain your current weight is one easy option. Eating healthy foods every chance you get is another. And turning down desserts or fattening beverages, and substituting healthy alternatives like fruit and veggies, yogurt, water and low-fat alternatives will help. Finding time to walk and exercise, especially in the midst of December chaos, is truly beneficial. And ensuring you get enough sleep, eat at regular intervals and carve out some “me time” will help fight stress, mental fatigue and physical exhaustion.

Here are some basic tips for enjoying yourself at the holidays and for not overindulging:

  • Practice awareness. Be conscious of what you eat and how much. Allow yourself some special treats at the holidays but have moderate servings. When there’s a lot of food available, try appetizer-sized helpings instead of dishing up a full serving. Don’t deprive yourself, but be aware of content and calories. When possible, avoid foods rich in fats, salt, sugar and preservatives. And remember, alcohol reduces your will to practice good eating habits.
  • Be realistic. December is not the best time for weight loss. Try to maintain weight instead of losing it. Keep it all in perspective — you don’t have to indulge every minute from Thanksgiving until the Super Bowl. Allow some treats for those special days, then get back into your healthy routine the next day.
  • Manage stress and emotions. One way to keep stress at a minimum is to lower your expectations about holidays. Ask for help to lighten your holiday schedule. Host a potluck holiday meal instead of cooking dinner. Or serve it buffet style instead of having a sit-down meal. Learn to say “no,” in a courteous manner, to activities and food that aren’t in your best interest. And at social events, don’t fill silence with food. Talk and make new friends, and even if you’re sad, try turning to people for comfort instead of food.
  • Plan in advance. Eat a little before you go to a holiday gathering — hunger can undo the best intentions. Also, avoid sources of temptation whenever you can. After visiting a buffet, leave the room that’s filled with food. If there are sweets in the office break room, don’t go there. If you’re given unhealthy food as a gift, bring it to the office or to a friend’s house to share. Also, if you’re traveling for the holidays, pick up some healthy, portable snacks before you leave so you’re less likely to be tempted by unhealthy options.
  • Remain physically active. That doesn’t mean running to the store every five minutes — it’s walking on the treadmill, working out at home or at your favorite gym, keeping your yoga appointments, and taking a hike on a mild winter day. Exercise is great for reducing stress and working off some of those extra holiday calories!
  • Make a personal wellness plan. Since January is right around the corner, start thinking now about exercise, nutrition, health and weight goals for the New Year. Make appointments with your physician or a nutritionist. Look for fitness-related classes like spinning, swimming or yoga, or a gym that’s right for you. Write down your goals, post them where you’ll see them every day, and share them with another person.

Most importantly, consider what really matters during this busy time of year, and plan accordingly. Figure out what you absolutely have to do, then let go of the rest. Our overall goal should be trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle both in and outside of the fall and winter feasting season. Constant weight gains and losses can be harmful to our health and our psyches. Balance, moderation, and flexibility are keys to better health…and celebrations are really about family and friends, not food.

# # #

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

A gift to employees you don’t have to wrap

If you’re struggling to find the perfect gift for your employees that truly keeps on giving, think health and wellness! This is the ideal time of year to help employees explore their personal wellness regimen and health goals, and set positive behavioral changes in motion for 2015. As employers, we can set the pace for ourselves and our teams through proactive planning, education and outreach.

Chances are you’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit, such as completing individual health assessments. That’s a great start, but now it’s about moving from planning to action. Leaders help encourage and motivate their workforces. Healthier employees are happier, more motivated and productive. They also require less sick time, and are more attentive to their teammates and customers.

Supplementing the cost of membership in local fitness centers and gyms is a popular option. You also can bring health experts in areas such as nutrition, fitness and stress reduction into your office to talk with employees during the work day. Encouraging and sponsoring activities such as bowling, team workouts and charity drives encourages team-building and improves morale. This is particularly important during the cold winter months when getting outside is inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Spring, thankfully, isn’t that far away, so planning for charity walks, softball, volleyball and related activities can start now.

Some employers sponsor in-house fitness classes, yoga and health screenings, and offer personal health and fitness coaches. One local company, The Barn Yard & Great Country Garages, in Ellington, actually had a massage therapist in for an employee spa day. According to Michael Maiscalo, assistant vice president, when their company held their free massage day, 16 employees enjoyed 20-minute massages. The idea for this event resulted from a “Wellness Jumpstart” contest held by CBIA Health Connections earlier in the year to encourage wellness ideas. Submissions were collected and entered into a drawing.

The Barn Yard & Great Country Garages submitted their spa suggestion, and received a $500 gift from CBIA to help pay for the event. The feedback from this activity was very positive, said Maiscalo, and the company will look at repeating it and related wellness activities in the future.

There are a variety of health and wellness initiatives companies can entertain. Asking employees for their input and participation helps keep people focused and engaged. It can be something as simple as healthy recipe swaps, replacing candy and soda machines with healthier snacks, and sponsoring fitness activities. Friendly internal competitions with cash or other incentives go a long way toward promoting participation. In fact, incentives for improving employee participation in health coaching and related programs was a major topic discussed in November by The National Obesity Society (TOS) at its annual meeting in Boston.

Workplace wellness programs have the potential to significantly improve employee health, said lead researcher and author Jason Block, MD, TOS Member and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Population Medicine. “Our goal was to evaluate what motivates people to participate in these programs and what strategies companies and insurers can use to get everyone involved,” Block explained. “Our data show that financial incentives clearly work to motivate participation in a health coach program and in related health activities.”

Block offered the following tips on initiating coaching or wellness-related incentives:

  • Structure your programs to reward employees for engaging in healthy habits;
  • Avoid the use of body mass index (BMI) as a basis for financial penalties or incentives;
  • Ensure incentive programs are matched with health plans that cover evidence-based obesity treatment programs and medications;
  • Focus programs on overall wellness for all employees, rather than only those affected by obesity or overweight; and
  • Create a supportive workplace environment that provides opportunities for healthy behaviors, such as healthy food options in the cafeteria and vending machines.

Whatever you can offer your employees will be appreciated when it comes to recognizing their health concerns.

If you haven’t already, start your planning now and welcome the new year with a renewed commitment to workforce health and wellness.

# # #

If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!