Headaches. If you’ve had one, you understand how debilitating it can be.
Did you know that migraine headaches alone are estimated to cost the Canadian economy $500 million annually in lost productivity and absenteeism? (Angus Reid Poll, 1990).
This doesn’t even include other types of headaches such as sinus, cluster, or tension.
If headaches are so common, why do they appear to be so poorly managed? Chronic headache sufferers frequently do not receive the proper treatment and education on management because it can be very challenging for a health care practitioner to determine the root cause of the pain.
Paying close attention to your headaches, including location, how long they last, quality of the pain and what reduces or triggers the pain, will help your doctor identify the type of headache you are experiencing, which will result in better overall treatment.
Headaches can be caused by a number of triggers such as hormone imbalances, sleep disturbances, foods, odors, smoking, alcohol, light or temperature sensitivities, weather sensitivities, sinus problems, poor postural alignment, muscle tension and the most common trigger—stress.
One of the most effective ways to manage your headaches is to avoid or address these triggers. This is easier said than done; however, finding and knowing what your triggers are is an essential step to successful management.
Sometimes finding your headache triggers may result in different choices or even lifestyle changes you need to make. Other times, it may appear that there is nothing you can do to avoid your triggers. If this is truly the case, then at least your physician can still use your triggers as a guide for a more successful treatment.
The most common type of headache pain is due to tension (Blanda, 2012) and tension headaches are what we treat most as physiotherapists.
A tension headache is often associated with tightened muscles of the head and neck and can feel like a dull pain or pressure encircling the head, or at the base of the skull.
It will likely be no surprise to you that the most effective way to treat tension headaches is to find out what is causing the muscle tension and then address it. There could be many reasons why your head and neck muscles are tense. Here are just a few:
• Muscular imbalances: Weak and/or shortened postural muscles from poor postural habits or ergonomics can cause inappropriate head position. This places undue strain on the muscles of the head and neck, causing chronic tension and lack of blood flow to these muscles
• If the joints in your neck or your jaw are not moving properly or are stiff, they can cause the surrounding musculature to become tight or guarded
• Vision problems can cause your eyes to strain and as a result, your facial muscles become chronically tense (when is the last time you had your eyes checked?)
• Poor stress management. Even mild, daily stress can cause chronic tension in the head and neck muscles if you do not have effective stress management techniques. The most common cause of headaches is prolonged tension or stress (MediResource, 2012). Finding effective stress reduction methods that work for you in your daily life are essential in fighting the battle against tension headaches.
When you can give your physician valuable details about your headaches, he or she can then recommend an appropriate treatment approach which may include a referral to a specialized health care professional (neurologist, physiotherapist, pain specialist, massage therapist, yoga therapist, counsellor) to help educate and empower you to take an active role in the management of your headaches.