Triggers Remedies and Drug-Free Headache Relief

Dr. Colleen Boling, DC

More than 14 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches. We’re not talking about the occasional headache, but the kind of headaches that you get day, after day, after day. And for many, the first thing that they do is to pop a few aspirin, or some other over-the-counter pain reliever.

But why? After all, headaches are not due to an aspirin deficiency.

What does that mean? Well, let’s say that you stepped on a tack. Ouch. What’s the first thing that you’d do to make that pain go away? Take a pain reliever, but continue to walk around with a tack embedded in your foot? Or, would you remove the tack?

The pain in your head (or in your foot) is not caused by the fact that your body is deficient in pain relievers. The pain is due to something else. So, isn’t it logical then to figure out what is causing the pain and remove that trigger (pulling out the tack), rather than cover up the pain by taking a pain relieving medication?

Keep reading to learn more and visit a local chiropractor serving Wausau, Weston, and beyond at Innovative Health to feel better and live better.

Dangers of OTC Pain Relievers

To be fair, I am not opposed to the occasional use of over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or naproxen (Aleve). Those medications can work great for occasional aches and pains. However, when used daily, over long periods of time, they can become dangerous.

Chronic, daily exposure to NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen) can harm the GI tract, cause ulcers, lead to fatal bleeding, increase high blood pressure, cause kidney damage, and may be linked to an increased risk of atrial fibrillation. Chronic exposure to acetaminophen can lead to liver damage. In fact, even when used properly, 100,000 hospitalizations and 16,000 deaths each year have been linked to the adverse effects of NSAIDs.

Understanding Headaches

In order to best treat a headache, it’s important to identify what type it is: tension/stress headache, migraine, or cervicogenic.

Tension or stress headaches are the most common type of headache. They are best described as a dull, achy feeling on one or both sides of the head. Some say it feels like a tight band has been placed around the head. Tension headaches begin slowly and can last for a few minutes up to a few days. Common tension headache triggers are stress, bad posture, misalignments of the spine, and trigger points.

Migraine headaches affect 25 million people each year, 75 percent of which are women. A migraine headache is an intense, throbbing headache that is often accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light or noise. A migraine can last for a few hours or for a few days.

A migraine is a vascular headache. It occurs when the blood vessels of the brain constrict (get smaller) and then dilate (get bigger). This decrease of blood flow, followed by the rapid increase in blood flow increases the blood pressure in the head, producing a pounding headache.

While science has been unable to pinpoint what causes migraines, some common triggers are believed to be: lack of sleep, stress, flickering lights, strong odors, change in weather, and some foods.

A cervicogenic headache is a combination of a tension headache and a migraine. A cervicogenic headache actually originates from the neck and refers pain to the head. It is the result of damage to the joints, muscles, ligaments, and nerves. This damage could be due to a traumatic event or it could occur over time.

Cervicogenic headaches are characterized by a dull ache, usually in the back of the head. Sometimes the pain is felt behind the eyes or the temple and may be on one side. The pain may come on gradually during activity or upon waking the next morning. It is often accompanied by neck pain and stiffness. This type of headache may be caused by trauma/injury, poor posture, neck/upper back stiffness, sedentary lifestyle, sleeping position, stress, or dehydration.

Common Headache Triggers

Going back to the tack in the foot example, the best way to relieve a headache is to identify and remove the trigger that’s causing it.  Four common headache triggers are: posture, stress, nutrition, and hydration.

Posture – As a chiropractor, I know that poor posture can result in many different aches and pains and can cause permanent damage to the body. Whether you’re sitting or standing, it is vitally important to maintain correct posture to balance the spine. Good posture is achieved if you can draw a straight line from the ears, to the shoulders, hips, and knees.

The average human head weighs 12 pounds. But for every inch of forward head posture, it increases the weight of your head on the spine by an additional 10 pounds. That means that if you tend to hunch over when you sit at your desk, say by three inches, the excess pressure put on your spine is equivalent to your head weighing 42 pounds.

Stress – Oh, our old friend stress.  Headaches are just one of the many ways that stress can adversely affect your health. When you are under stress, the muscles in your neck and upper back tend to tense up and can put stress on your nerves. A stress headache is like having a pinched nerve in your head.

The best advice here is to eliminate whatever is causing the stress. If only it were that easy, right? If you can’t eliminate the stressor, you will need to find ways to deal with it. That may include exercising, stretching, meditating, getting more sleep, or applying ice to the tensed area of the body.

Diet & Nutrition – When it comes to dietary and nutritional headache triggers, the science can be conflicting. Foods that cause problems for some, may not cause problems for others.
That being said, some common headache triggering foods are:

  • excessive caffeine
  • aspartame
  • sulfites found in wine, beer, and chocolate
  • nitrates found in processed meats and hot dogs
  • food dyes
  • MSG found in flavor enhancers and meat tenderizers
  • dairy, including yogurt, cheese, and ice cream
  • tyramine, an amino acid found in aged cheese, avocados, over ripe bananas, beer, fermented and dried meats, red wine, sauerkraut, and chocolate
  • tannins, found in coffee, tea, chocolate, red wine, and apple juice

Chocolate lovers will notice that it appeared more than once in the list above.  However, the research on chocolate is also conflicting.  The question being – does chocolate actually trigger the headache, OR are we craving chocolate because we are stressed or experiencing hormone changes?  In that case, the chocolate my not actually be the cause of the headache, just an indicator that the headache is coming.

Dehydration – When your body does not have enough water and necessary electrolytes (sodium, chloride, potassium), the blood vessels will narrow, reducing the supply of blood and oxygen to the brain. The result is a headache.  Keep in mind however, that not all liquids are created equal.  Coffee and alcohol are actually diuretics, meaning that they increase dehydration. And, there is no solid evidence that sports drinks are better than plain old water when it comes to hydrating your body.

Headache Diary

The best way to deal with chronic headaches is to identify and remove the trigger. One of the best things a patient can do is to keep a headache diary. Whenever a headache comes on, note the following: date, duration, description of the pain (location, severity, symptoms), treatments (medications you took or remedies you tried, and their effectiveness), possible triggers (environment, food, events).  By tracking this information, you may be able to identify what is actually triggering your headache pain. Once you identify the trigger, then you can work on eliminating it.

Drug-Free Headache Relief

If you are unable to effectively reduce or manage your headaches by making the changes noted above, chiropractic care from a local chiropractor can help.

Chiropractic adjustments can correct musculoskeletal imbalances, relax muscles, and remove stress from the joints in the head and neck, helping all three types of headaches without the use of OTC or prescription drugs.

Research has shown that chiropractic can be very effective for treating headaches. A 2001 study at Duke University found that “spinal manipulation resulted in almost immediate improvement for those headaches that originate in the neck, and has significantly fewer side effects and longer-lasting relief of tension-type headaches than commonly prescribed medications.”

Your chiropractor can also teach stretching exercises and provide ergonomic suggestions for home and work to help prevent future headaches.

If you have any questions about chiropractic care for headaches, contact Innovative Health clinic. Our local chiropractors aim to help those in Wausau, Weston, Schofield, and beyond to feel better and live better — and initial consultations are always done free of charge.