It is estimated that 45 million Americans suffer from severe recurring attacks of migraine and tension headaches. Together, they spend upwards of $400,000,000 each year on over-the-counter and prescription drugs in a search for permanent relief. Headaches rank as the number-one health complaint in America, surpassing in occurrence even the common cold. It is estimated that approximately 90% of men and 95% of women suffer from headaches at some point in any given year. A 1994 U.S. Center for Disease Control report measuring the economic impact of headaches, states that each year headaches generate 80 million visits to the doctor and cost employers 157 million workdays, resulting in an estimated annual cost from absenteeism and medical bills of 50 billion dollars.
What are headaches, really? They are the perception of pain in the head, yet the brain actually feels no pain. Many headaches are essentially a vascular compromise triggered by a variety of factors or chemically mediated pain fiber stimulation. Pain, any type of pain is now defined as “an unpleasant perception of an adverse sensation.”
To appreciate this statement let’s look at the nervous system. If you stub your toe it hurts, but does it? Actually, the nerve endings in your toe get stimulated and send signals of pain or injury to your brain. Your brain then interprets the location of the pain either correctly or incorrectly, and informs you via nerves to a deeper brain center that also stimulates emotional centers. This and other factors such as individual biochemical and emotional states dictate how and where the pain is perceived. If you could measure pain you’d see a vast differential from person to person.
Numerous attempts to classify headaches have been made as to the type, severity, and location of pain. In allopathic medicine a headache is diagnosed according to these classifications and then medications are prescribed that have been found to be effective. What do these drugs do? Generally speaking, these drugs are varieties of the “bigger aspirin” approach to symptomatic control. This is fine for first aid measures but not as a long-term treatment. A better way of treating headaches would be by identifying tissue response or contributing factors that give rise to the headache and then addressing those causes or dysfunctions.
As mentioned earlier all headaches are basically a vascular response. So, the question is: The response to what? A multitude of factors can cause a relative lack of nutrients to an area of the brain. In an attempt to correct this, the vascular vessels constrict in an effort to force more nutrients to the area via vasoconstriction. No pain yet, but maybe some strange auras or sensations. After vasoconstriction comes vasodilation and this is where the pain begins. Pain fibers that are wrapped around the blood vessels now get stretched and impart a signal to the pain centers in the brain. Now, the location and severity of the vascular compromise determines where you feel pain as well as the intensity and characteristics of the pain. Other causes of vascular compromise include tumor, aneurysm, histamine, and other biochemical irritants.
So, the lack of oxygen and glucose in an area of the brain can bring on a headache. Elsewhere, other underlying causes can be evident. Some common causes include low and high blood pressure with or without medication, blood glucose changes, hormonal imbalances, eye strain, tension, TMJ (jaw problems), exertion, allergies to foods or chemicals or medications, digestive problems, chronic fatigue, lifestyle, psychological stress and the most common, structural disturbances.
The solution is to identify and handle all the factors that are involved. Often more than one factor needs to be addressed. A truly wholistic approach considers the structural, biochemical, and psychological states of the individual. More powerful drugs only suppress the end result, namely the headache. The person’s medical history is probably the most revealing factor to guide a professional to an identifiable conclusion, then a variety of “alternative” methods can be employed. The most common of headaches, the tension headache, responds extremely well to chiropractic and cranial therapy. Identifying biochemical and allergic tendencies can easily be done by applied kinesiology muscle testing or blood lab testing from specialized laboratories. Often detoxification procedures or repair of the digestive tract as well as restoring functional nutrition will make the difference between success and failure. Other techniques such as the herbs, vitamins, diet, meridian therapy, stress reduction, allergy elimination techniques, exercise, massage, and chiropractic can all be used together in handling headaches. In fact a recent study, one of the most thorough studies of migraine patients and chiropractic compiled from information gathered from numerous studies over a 50-year period, found patients receiving chiropractic care showed an improvement or cure rate of 72 to 90 percent. (Studies conducted by J. Stuart Wight, DC, of Edinburgh, Scotland.)
The following are a few real case examples.Joan came into the officecomplaining of frontal headaches for the past six months. She stated that the headaches were dull and started in the morning and wore off in the afternoon. She had been diagnosed with simple tension headaches and told to take aspirin. Her blood tests, including a thyroid profile, were negative. My examination and consultation revealed a sub-normal body temperature and an active reflex indicating thyroid and pituitary involvement. Joan was given chiropractic adjustments to the cervical and dorsal spine and a few dietary supplements that support the thyroid, as well as major dietary changes. Within two weeks she no longer experienced any headaches and has remained headache free for one year.
Mary entered the office complaining of headaches in the back of the neck and radiating to the right eye. She had an extensive history of cervical and head trauma. She had these headaches three to four times a month and they lasted 2-4 days. She got double vision and nausea. Her primary treatment for the past ten years had been heavy-duty pain medication that also affected her ability to function. She was treated with a series of specific chiropractic adjustments to the upper cervical spine as well as making several cranial and TMJ corrections. After two months of treatment she no longer needed to take medication and her headaches were reduced 60 to 70% in frequency and duration.
Alex came to the office because he was experiencing sharp pain in his left eye, chronic fatigue and depression. His symptoms had steadily increased in the past four months and he had been told to take pain medication and get more rest. Upon examination, extensive cranial and TMJ involvements were revealed. X-rays of the face and jaw were negative, digestive stool analysis tests revealed an abnormal bacterial environment and low enzyme levels. Treatment consisted of cranial corrections, cervical adjustments, a TMJ orthopedic device, dietary restrictions, and enzyme therapy. Within six weeks his energy doubled and the headaches were completely gone.
It is not advisable to spend hundreds of dollars for an occasional headache when 1-2 aspirin would do the trick. But, if you have severe headaches more than three times a year or mild headaches monthly, you should be concerned about finding the cause and eliminating the sources of the headaches. No one treatment works for everyone, so find someone who practices in a wholistic way. It is not enough to say “natural” because that is too limiting, but rather seek someone who addresses the biochemical, structural and psychological aspects. As a final thought, remember that headaches are not normal!
Randy Schaetzke, D.C., D.I.B.A.K.