Pain is the body’s way of telling you that something is wrong, much like the lights on the dashboard of a car. So if you have headaches of any kind, it’s important that you find the cause and not just treat the symptoms. Headaches can also be a sign of a severe problem, so if you suffer from headaches, please seek professional care.
On the lighter side, there are many types of headaches that can be treated simply, without need for medical intervention. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of various causes so you can do more to help yourself reduce or eliminate them. Aside from the ones listed below with more detail, some common causes are:
- Hydration (more below)
- Muscle tension (more below)
- TMJ dysfunction (more below)
- Malocclusion (more below)
- Sinus issues (more below)
- Spinal misalignment
- Food and environmental allergies
- Low blood sugar (high blood sugar)
- High blood pressure
- Medication side effects
- Hormonal imbalances
- Migraines and cluster headaches
- Exhaustion and fatigue
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
- Aspertame/Nutrisweet/Aminosweet/MSG (allergies or sensitivities)
Dehydration is a HUGE cause of headaches. When you take aspirin or other OTC pain medication, notice that you are drinking water with it. If your headache begins to diminish within 15 minutes, it’s the water not the medication. It takes at least 20 minutes for the medication to begin working.
Dehydration can also be a side effect of a more serious issue, from a medication or severe illness, to the flu. So it’s important to be sure you always stay hydrated. Try drinking about one-half to three-quarters of a gallon of water (herbal tea) per day, while also DECREASING all things that dehydrate (caffeine and alcohol). You may find that you get headaches less often.
Tension headaches can be caused by stress, injury, and improper posture (sitting at computer, driving, using the phone, sleeping, reading, studying, etc.). If possible, do what you can to keep your spine (this includes your neck) aligned. The bowling ball that is your head should sit comfortably over your shoulders, not forward. When at work and sleeping, use appropriate ergonomic devices (arm support and pillows). When doing any kind of repetitive activity, take breaks, stretch (and drink water). You’ll feel much better.
Stress is a real problem in our fast-paced world. Telling you to “de-stress” is probably not too helpful, since you already know to do that. Therefore, practice what you know. Here are some suggestions: massage, acupuncture, yoga, sleep, stretching, exercise, delegate, meditate, counseling, coaching, take deep breaths, take a break from screens, laugh, connect with a friend, do something creative or go outside (in a wooded area or near a body of water if possible).
TMJ Dysfunction (TMD)
One main cause of tension headaches is clenching and grinding your teeth since the head, neck, and jaw all have muscles that spasm from clenching and grinding. These symptoms can be a sign of TMJ (Tempro-Mandibular Joint) Dysfunction. Sleeping with a night guard is a common and simple device to help reduce the wear and tear on your teeth, though it won’t help your soft tissue. Additionally, braces may be helpful, so also seek out a good orthodontist that specializes in TMJ Dysfunction if necessary. Many dentists and orthodontists are NOT specialists, please see one who is. Soft tissue work to your neck, head, and jaw will is also very helpful.
In the meantime, if you find that you wake up with your cheeks chewed up, your teeth or jaw sore and tired, or your face sore, you are most likely clenching or grinding your teeth in your sleep, and you may not know it. You might even believe you aren’t, so you’ll need to ask someone else. Your dentist or hygienist will see a wear pattern on your teeth or pieces of your teeth can break off (requiring fillings). Even your partner may notice if the noise wakes him/her up.
Your TMD dentist/orthodontist will most likely fit your for a splint that you’ll wear whenever you sleep. USE IT. As a stopgap measure, you can get a mouth guard from a sporting goods store (the kind you boil and then it molds to your teeth) — sleep with it until you get a real one. If you find that you clench and/or grind your teeth during the day, then there’s more “de-stressing” you need to do. See above.
Another dental issue that can contribute to headaches is malocclusion, which is where your bite doesn’t line up correctly. When this happens, an imbalance in the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia of the head and neck create improper pulling on the structures. Like TMD, this type of tension won’t go away without intervention, so it’s critical to seek professional care.
Two common reasons for malocclusion are improperly positioned teeth (braces will fix this), and jaw injury. It is best to seek a good orthodontist who can properly assess the situation and recommend treatment. It’s important to take care of this as soon as the problem is noticed, as over time the discs in the joints can wear out causing more problems, like TMD.
Everyone knows about sinus headaches, but not everyone knows that regular saline irrigation to the nasal cavity can help PREVENT them by reducing or eliminating allergies, thus reducing the likelihood of infection. If the sinus headaches are from weather changes, they can be trickier, but it’s not hopeless. Some self massage and acupuncture can help. Also, a REALLY good Cranio-Sacral therapist or a good Rolfer™ can do wonders for you. For a Cranio-Sacral therapist, look at http://www.upledger.com and to search for a Certified Rolfer, go to www.rolf.org.