Understanding and coping with migraines and tension headaches

If ever there was another club you didn’t want to belong to, here’s a doozy:  The Headache Club. Membership is free, and all are welcome. Unfortunately, many people qualify; one out of eight Americans suffer from migraines and millions experience occasional or periodic non-chronic headaches.

Tension headaches are one of the most common forms of headaches. They may occur at any age, but are most common in adults and adolescents. Tension headaches occur when neck and scalp muscles become tense, or contract. The muscle contractions can be a response to stress, depression, a head injury, exhaustion or anxiety. Additionally, any activity that causes the head to be held in one position for a long time without moving can cause a headache. That might include typing or other computer or close-up work, fine work with the hands, sleeping in a cold room, or sleeping with the neck in an abnormal position.

Drinking alcoholic beverages is one of the best-known causes for headaches. Blood flow to your brain increases when you drink alcohol, and impurities in alcohol or by-products produced as your body metabolizes alcohol can cause headaches. Red wine, beer, whiskey, and champagne are the most commonly identified headache triggers.

Other common triggers of tension headaches include:

  • Caffeine (too much or withdrawal)
  • Colds, the flu, or a sinus infection
  • Dental problems such as jaw clenching or teeth grinding
  • Eye strain
  • Excessive smoking
  • Fatigue or overexertion

Tension headaches can occur when you also have a migraine. Migraines usually begin during the teenage years. After puberty, migraines are more likely to affect girls and women. Experts still aren’t sure what causes these often debilitating headaches. They seem to involve a wave of unusual activity in brain nerve cells, along with changes in blood flow in the brain.

Migraines have a tendency to run in families – up to 80 percent of migraine sufferers have a family member who also gets these headaches. Though migraines can trigger severe pain in the head, they aren’t simply headaches. They often also cause other uncomfortable symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, unusual sensitivity to light, noises, and smells, inability to work, sleep, eat or even get off the couch or out of bed. They are complicated, with a variety of symptoms that change over hours or can run for days.

Migraine sufferers should seek treatment from their physician or a specialist, but may be able to reduce the frequency of their migraine attacks by identifying and then avoiding migraine triggers. For example, recalling what was eaten prior to an attack may help you identify chemical triggers, so experts recommend keeping a “migraine diary.” Eating on a regular schedule and ensuring adequate rest contribute to fewer migraine attacks, as does stress management, coping techniques, and relaxing skills. Additionally, regular exercise, in moderation, can help prevent migraines. And women who often get migraines around their menstrual period can take preventive therapy when they know their period is coming.

Medication can help reduce the number and severity of migraine headaches for people who get them frequently. Caution is recommended, however, as many commonly used pain-relief medications, when taken too often, can cause low-grade or rebound headaches. These potential culprits include aspirin, sinus-relief medications, acetaminophen (Tylenol), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, sedatives, codeine, and prescription narcotics and over-the-counter combination headache remedies containing caffeine.

Additionally, certain foods are suspected of contributing to migraines in some patients. These can include aged cheese and other foods containing tyramine, a naturally occurring substance formed as foods age, especially high-protein foods. Tyramine also is found in red wine, alcoholic beverages, and some processed meats. Food additives, such as nitrates and nitrites, dilate blood vessels and also can cause headaches.

Keeping headaches at bay

Here are some steps you can take to help reduce headache frequency and severity.

  • Follow your headache treatment plan and avoid taking medications that have not been ordered by your doctor.
  • Reduce emotional stress. Make time to relax, try to take breaks from stressful situations, and learn relaxation skills such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
  • When sitting for prolonged periods, get up and stretch periodically and consciously relax your jaw, neck, and shoulders.
  • Get proper rest and sleep
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat meals and snacks at about the same times every day
  • Quit smoking. Smoking can trigger headaches and make any headache, especially cluster headaches, worse.

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!