Unknotting headaches


By Colleen Brady
First published in Chatelaine’s September 2002 issue.
© Colleen Brady

Almost everyone has experienced a headache. Let’s look at the different causes, symptoms and treatments.

Tension headaches
Causes and symptoms A tension headache is usually caused by emotional or physical stress, lack of sleep, poor posture when sitting at a desk or driving or emotional upset. Pressing pain, tightness or throbbing on the front, top or both sides of the head are classic symptoms.

Treat it Reduce stress–lie down or sit quietly, close your eyes and relax, take a warm shower or treat yourself to a massage. Apply heat to the painful area using a hot-water bottle or damp washcloth. Or you may get relief from using an ice pack or bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth. If a certain painkiller has worked in the past, then try it again. Over-the-counter remedies include acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin), ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Don’t use acetylsalicylic acid or ibuprofen if you are on blood thinners or have an ulcer. 

For more troublesome headaches, consider something stronger, such as Tylenol No. 1 (acetaminophen) or 222 (acetylsalicylic acid), which contain eight milligrams of codeine and 15 milligrams of caffeine. These products are available at your pharmacy counter. Codeine makes you drowsy, so be cautious if you are on other medications such as antidepressants, which cause similar effects. If you clench your teeth at night and wake up with a headache, your dentist can fit you for a dental appliance (similar to a retainer) that’s worn at night to prevent clenching.

See your doctor if your headaches become more frequent or severe, if you experience nausea, vomiting or sensitivity to light or if your normal treatment does not help.

Causes and symptoms Women are three times more likely than men to suffer migraines. This is because fluctuating estrogen levels from menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy (HRT) are a common migraine trigger. (However, some women find that HRT reduces their migraines.) Other migraine triggers include caffeine, chocolate, strong odours, loud noise, red wine, aspartame, MSG and some prescription drugs, such as nitroglycerine (to treat angina) or indomethacin (a painkiller).

Migraine pain is pulsating, moderate to severe and is usually on one side of the head. Nausea, vomiting or sensitivity to light, noises or odours are common. About 20 per cent of migraine sufferers experience an aura–flashing lights, numbness or tingling in the face or arm, strange smells or sounds–about 15 to 30 minutes before a migraine occurs. 

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