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The Misery of Headaches

We don’t often think about how heavy our head is until it starts to ache. Then it feels like a fifty pound stone rolling around on top of our shoulders.

And every movement hurts.

It can range from a nagging background pain to the life stopping throb that erupts with each heart beat, until all you can do is lie down and shut the world out. Statistics range from 47% to 86% of people who will be experiencing headaches, either occasional or chronic. But where do they come from and how can we avoid them?

In most cases, the headache is the condition. That is to say, it is the problem, and not the symptom of a bigger problem. If you go to a doctor about it, he may run lots of tests to find out if there is an underlying problem. This is the case in only a minute percentage of people, so that’s a good thing.

But when they find out that there’s no big scary condition that is causing the headache as a symptom, doctors tend to dismiss the rest as though the pain is no longer important. This can be frustrating.

Some of the usual causes are:

In our modern lives, it is this last point that makes up the majority of headaches I see in my office.

Stress can lead to the other habits, causing us to eat poorly or in a rushed way, sleep badly and hunch our shoulders in response to chronic tension. Computer postures can also lead us here, especially when there are deadlines to be met and we neglect to take those breaks every fifteen minutes to stretch. (Seriously, does anyone do that?)

Postural faults can create patterns of tension that lock in trigger points which make pain travel to other areas, notably the head and neck. People often say, “I hold my tension in my shoulders.”

A trigger point is a knot that gets so tight it can cut off its own circulation. When that happens, there is always pain, not always right over the spot. If you press on it, you may feel extra tightness or pain, but it may not actually hurt in general.

Trigger points have the nasty attribute of referring pain to other places.  Upper back and shoulder trigger points can refer into the head.  Voila – you have a tension headache.

There are a couple of reasons why this pattern can lock in. One is holding the shoulders up, just one inch for many hours. If you imagine someone making a loud noise behind you suddenly, the sort of reaction you would have creates that tension. Daily tension in the office will do the same.

Another common reason is postural. You can start your day nice and straight, but as we sit in front of the computer, gradually the head comes forward and the chin lifts up. Then the whole head sinks down into the chest. The nice straight line from the collar bone to the back of the head becomes elongated, causing the muscles to pull back and hold on tight. The muscles and vertebrae in the back of the neck get squished, short and angry.

So what can we do about these sorts of headaches?

1. Rest and Relax

Yes, the farthest thing from our modern minds, and yet so important. Relaxing means letting go of at least a short time’s worth of stress. Getting away from the city and into a nature setting, even a park, refills the body and mind, and has a calming effect. Some call this earthing. If you can get your feet safely onto grass or into mud, even better!

Releasing tension may happen at a tai chi, yoga or dance class when you let go because you are concentrating on something else. Relaxing with friends means laughter, redirection of our attention. Anything that brings us away from the stress will be helpful and often gives us support in the form of community. How about a tension time-out every night? This is really living.

Resting is also important. Good quality sleep for at least 8 hours every night is thought to be vital to good health. If you are routinely getting less than this, you may survive, but your body will tell you that you are not strong and comfortable.

2. Caffeine

Coffee comes in and out of fashion. Demonized by some, it is actually an ingredient in many pain medications. Caffeine has various effects on the smooth muscle cells of blood vessels and can produce both constriction and dilation, or tightening and expanding. It’s hard to sort out why either one may help, but if you’re trying to avoid taking medication you could experiment with coffee or black tea to see if it helps. Benefits may increase if it is something you don’t drink every day.

3. Breathe and Stretch

The last time someone said to you, “just breathe”, you probably wanted to punch them in the nose. But the truth is, those 5 deep breaths will significantly change your blood chemistry.  It has an immediate effect on your sympathetic nerve (the fight or flight system) firing, so that even if your mind is still raging, your body will have begun to calm.

In addition, you can drop your head down and allow your neck to stretch, then gently roll side to side to include some stretch into the shoulders.

4. Massage it Yourself

You can see your favourite massage therapist for an hour of bliss, but you can also try a few things out at home.

Press your fingers in gently under your cheek bones and slide them towards the jaw. A lot of tension in the jaw is translated up into the sides of the head and face. Massage back and forth for a bit and see if you can feel where the tension sits from the extra pressure. From here, massage up around the ears and sides of the head. Hold and move the skin around rather than trying to slide through your hair.

Tie two tennis balls into a sock and lie down with them just under the skull into the soft tissue. Golf or squash balls may work in more specifically for you. Try just lying still on them to stretch the muscles, or gently move your head around, nodding or moving side to side until you can feel them working into the tough spots.

Grab hold of your opposite shoulder and feel around for “that spot”.  It will be about three finger-widths from your neck.  Just give it the weight of your arm to pull it down. Then gently rotate your shoulder around. You may feel a trigger point under your hand as it seems to rise and fall with the shoulder rotations. This won’t actually dig it out of there, but you should get some temporary relief.

This approach is better than trying to massage it with your hand, which can cause your wrist and arm to hurt.

5. Take it Easy

Above all, remember why you’re here. Try to relax into your life. It’s short. Change what you can. Accept what you can. Make a plan for the rest. Laugh with friends and family as much as possible. Good connections make everything easier.

(This article was first published to LinkedIn on November 9, 2015.  It has been updated for its home turf.)

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