Family Health Healthy Living Neuroscience

Stop living in pain—face your headaches head-on

How do you describe a headache?

“The pain I feel in my head resulting from a rough day at work, home with the kids or staying two hours too long at my in-laws'”?

Well, headaches are more complex than that. But don’t let figuring them out be a headache within itself—because learning the type that you experience can help you and your doctor find the right treatment for you. Dr. Ramon Parrish, a family medicine and geriatric medicine physician at Augusta University Health, is here to break it down for you.

The four types of headaches

There are different types of headaches, and they all have their own symptoms and triggers.

  1. A migraine headache is the most debilitating type of headache, which causes a decline in productivity and overall quality of life.
    • Symptoms: Nausea, extreme sensitivity to light and sound, vomiting
    • Triggers: Stress, family history, being female, hormonal changes in women especially during puberty

Migraines begin with the constriction of the blood vessels in the brain. Once this part of the process is over, the blood vessels dilate, which sends a rush a blood into the brain and increases the pressure—hence the pain. The blood vessels contain pain-sensitive nerves, which transmit signals that activate the pain centers in the brain.

Parrish relates what happens to the blood vessels to a garden hose: “Imagine turning off the water and then suddenly turning it on all the way,” he said. “This sudden increase in pressure is thought to cause migraines.”

More women tend to suffer from migraines than men, “but they generally go away at menopause or get better as you get older,” Parrish added.

  1. A cluster headache is what the name suggests; it’s a group of short but painful attacks over a period of time and is actually the most painful form of headache. These headaches tend to run in cycles; Parrish had a patient who experienced these headaches exactly six years apart.
    • Symptoms: Piercing, one-sided pain located around one eye, the forehead, nose, cheek or upper gum on side of face where pain is located
    • Triggers: Alcohol, cigarette smoke, physical exertion, irregular sleep cycle

In contrast to migraines, more men suffer from cluster headaches than women.

  1. A tension headache is a pain in the neck—literally!
    • Symptoms: Dull pain or pressure around forehead or back of head and neck
    • Triggers: Chronic stretching of muscles, stress, fatigue, heightened emotions, improper sleeping position, incorrect work ergonomics
  1. “Other” headaches include those that are brought on by drugs, neurological problems, physical activity and traumatic injury.

Treat your headache with natural remedies

“No patient should have to endure headaches,” Parrish said. “There’s no need for any headache patient to suffer unwittingly. Treatments are available, they work and have minimal side effects.”

Headache treatment prevents either the spasm of blood vessels or the dilation when it’s over. Here are several natural remedies, medicines and types of therapy that can alleviate headaches:

  • Lifestyle changes
    • Sleep management: Parrish said that this is the most important remedy. Migraine patients need to go to bed and wake up at the same time seven days a week, especially if they have caffeine-sensitive headaches. Certain over-the-counter sedation treatments like melatonin, valerian and kava kava can be effective in regulating sleep.
    • Exercise: Exercise affects your blood vessels, so if you particularly experience tension headaches, get moving and you may start to feel better.
  • Medication: If you’re getting a headache twice a month, then you may need to use preventive medicine. Parrish recommends the following medications and dosages, but you should consult with your physician first.
Medication Dose
Magnesium 600 mg twice day with meals
Riboflavin (Dr. Parrish’s favorite remedy) 200 mg twice day with meals
Coenzyme Q 150 mg daily
Fish oil 2-6 grams/day, 2 grams twice/day, morning and night
Alpha lipoic acid 200 mg three times day
Feverfew (herbal) 125 mg/day
Butterbur (herbal) 50 mg three times/day

Acute treatment is also an option; this uses an analgesic in combination with caffeine to stop a migraine.

  • Behavioral therapy: You can perform the following behavioral therapy techniques on your own:
    • Relaxation therapy and meditation: Find a quiet location that is free of distractions, take deep breaths, exhale slowly and mentally relax. Websites like calm.com and insight.co provide free guided meditation.
    • Biofeedback: This type of therapy works similar to a mood ring. Place a thermometer under your thumb, and use your mind to make yourself go cold. When you’re cold, your vessels don’t spasm, which alleviates the headache.

A psychologist can also perform various behavioral therapy techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming and relaxation therapy.

Where to begin?

Pinpointing your triggers is a great way to get the ball rolling with your headache relief, since the type of headache is determined by the triggers—and you and your physician need to know the type of headache you’re experiencing in order to receive proper treatment. Just like food journals help those who are focusing on eating more healthfully, using a headache diary can help you to pinpoint your triggers.

“Headache diaries are very useful,” Parrish said. “As soon as a headache starts, you need to write down the time and what you were doing during the hour leading up to your headache. Be as detailed as possible.”

Those details may also include feelings, as tension headaches can be brought on by stress, fatigue or heightened emotions.

“When is it time to go to the doctor,” you ask? Parrish advises you to do so if you’re experiencing the following:

  • A change in frequency or severity of your headaches
  • More than two migraines a month
  • Inability to keep up with usual routine, even if the headaches happen less frequently

Face your headaches head-on with us

To find a primary care physician or schedule an appointment at Augusta University Health, visit augustahealth.org, or call 706-721-2273 (CARE).

About the author

Augusta University Health

Augusta University Health

Based in Augusta, Georgia, Augusta University Health is a world-class health care network, offering the most comprehensive primary, specialty and subspecialty care in the region. Augusta University Health provides skilled, compassionate care to its patients, conducts leading-edge clinical research and fosters the medical education and training of tomorrow’s health care practitioners. Augusta University Health is a not-for-profit corporation that manages the clinical operations associated with Augusta University.

2 Comments

    • Teresa, we’re sorry to hear that you’re dealing with headaches. If you’d like to make an appointment, feel free to 706-721-2273 (CARE). Best wishes to you in your health!

Leave a Comment