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Common Types of Headache and How to Treat Them Naturally, Part 1: Tension Headaches

The main three types of headaches are tension headaches, cluster headaches and migraines. Each lends itself to a unique set of triggers or causes and therefore can be uniquely approached for prevention, treatment, and dare we say?, excommunication! What follows is a group of the three most common headache types, and ideas for how to start thinking in terms of "root cause" medicine.

Tension headaches

  • Most common headache type

  • Women > men

  • Many different causes: some physical, some psychological (think maladaptation/living in a world gone mad)

Techniques that seem to work for many people

Assessing & addressing posture: People with chronic tension headaches tend to show more forward head posture and have more active (read: painful/tender) trigger points along the neck and upper shoulders. Avoid "text neck." Break up sitting time and especially staring-at-a-device time.

Exploring, discovering, getting to know, and loving those abused & neglected muscles: Whether it's a visit to the chiropractor, massage therapist or simple self- (or partner) care, getting to know the muscles most likely to develop the trigger points that, well, trigger tension type headaches is a knowledge base well worth building, as it will pay dividends for as long as you live.

(And once you've mastered the neck and upper body, you can get to know the muscles of the hips and thighs, which could spare you or a loved one from low back pain, hip pain, knee pain and a more than likely unnecessary hip, back or knee surgery. More on that in a future post.)

Where to look: Tension headache sufferers tend to have tender trigger points along the trapezius (shrugging muscles), sternocleidomastoid (aka "SCM," crisscrossing bands of muscles running along the sides of the neck), and temporalis (the jaw clenching & chewing muscles).

It can also feel really good to have someone (it's tricky to do on oneself) dig into those twin divots at the base of the skull, where the suboccipital muscles cross and converge to make a kind of three-sided shape: the legendary and ignominious "sub-occipital triangle." If you've ever had a massage, you are likely familiar with how good this can feel. There are also self-massage devices that can help you here. Try a web search for "suboccipital release device."

Exercise: Because weak and poorly oxygenated muscles are more likely to develop kinks and trigger points, modestly strengthening (& stretching/rotating) muscles (especially SCM but also the scalenes and even temporalis) can reduce the frequency of tension type headaches.

If you can fit a (Hatha or Iyengar type) 2-3x weekly yoga routine into your life-- or even Tai Qi-- (with a good instructor, increasingly hard to find these days), I dare suggest not only headaches but all physical (maybe even psychic) pain will soon be banished from your existence. But then I am biased by my own personal experience.

Connecting to the wider world & melting away: Chronic, day to day stress is a consistent factor in the development of tension headaches. Whatever relaxes you (or gets you into that zone where you lose track of time), go do it! Get outdoors. Get away from screens. Move your body. Breath! Big, slow deep breaths!

Magnesium also helps muscles to relax, and it's nearly impossible these days to get enough from our depleted soils and industrial farming techniques. Supplementation guidance is something like 200 mg twice daily for women; 300 mg twice daily for men (RDA is 320/420). But even half that could help if you are getting some good magnesium-rich foods every day. Think Swiss chard, kasha (= toasted buckwheat groats), nuts & seeds (especially raw pumpkin seeds & almonds (some suggest soaking)) and legumes (black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas). Glycinate, threonate, malate are the preferred magnesium supplement forms, but citrate is okay: just don't overdo it or you'll be racing to the loo.

Calcium can also help to relax muscles, but the smartest IFM folks (also author cardiologist William Davis) advise against taking most calcium supplements as the calcium ends up deposited in the tissues of your body-- including the lining of your blood vessels! You don't want that. Calcium supplementation is tricky, and needs vitamin K to guide it where it is to go, and is best derived from unadulterated food. (Think heaps and heaps of dark, leafy greens. Also nuts, seeds, legume, sardines, whole-milk, homemade yogurt.)

If you need supplement recommendations/ideas, or have not yet hooked up with one of our discounted (20-30%) professional supplement dispensaries (Fullscript, Wellevate, Wholescripts/Xymogen, Designs for Health estore, Metagenics estore, Standard Process Patient Direct or InSite), just ask and we'll send you link or invite.

A future post will look at headache types and patterns from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective (including treatments, both herbal and acupressure/acupuncture). It's kind of cool!

Next week: cluster headaches

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