Suffer from Headaches? New Treatments Offer Hope

Your head is pounding, and you can’t concentrate. You feel nauseated and dizzy. You might have a runny nose, or a burning sensation behind one eye. Sometimes, you don’t feel pain, but your speech is slurred, and you have visual disturbances. We’re talking about headaches.

With 150 different types and a wide variety of causes and symptoms, this condition is much more complicated than the simple term “headache” suggests. Perhaps because so many people experience headaches – seven in 10 have a headache at least once a year – they rarely seek specialized treatment.

“And that’s a shame,” says Dr. Ashhar Ali, senior staff physician in the Department of Neurology’s Division of Headache and Facial Pain at Henry Ford Health System and clinical assistant professor of neurology at Wayne State School of Medicine. “The science of headache treatment is advancing rapidly,” he says. “There’s a vast ocean of treatment out there.”

So, if you’re among the 45 million Americans with debilitating headaches, take heart. With dozens of treatment options available, you likely can get help.

What kind of headache do you have?

Before you can be successfully treated, your specific type needs to be identified. Researchers divide the condition into two categories: primary headaches, which aren’t caused by something else; and secondary headaches, which are.

Primary headaches get a lot of attention, but secondary headaches can pack a powerful punch. They range from sinus infections and changes in medication to high blood pressure and dehydration. But because their causes can be identified, they are usually more treatable.

Primary headaches are tougher to combat. Most primary headaches are one of three types:

Migraine

Migraine interior

This is the most complex type. Sufferers feel a pounding or throbbing, often on one side of the head. They experience sensitivity to noise, light, touch and smell. And they may have visual disturbances, nausea and vomiting. Migraines last from four hours to three days. Sufferers more often are women, generally of child-bearing age. This neurological condition is the sixth most debilitating disease worldwide.

Cluster

Cluster interior

With excruciating pain that rivals labor or broken bones, cluster headaches produce a stabbing feeling on one side of the head that often causes a runny nose and eyes. The rarest of primary headaches, cluster headaches mainly affect men ages 20 to 40.

Attacks occur frequently during cluster periods, which can last up to six weeks.

Tension

Tension interior 

Tension headaches can be as painful as migraines, but they usually aren’t accompanied by nausea or changes in vision. They’re also the most common and treatable of primary headaches. They last from a few hours to a few days. Treatment often includes working on posture, and relaxation techniques for the muscles around the head and neck.

When to see a headache specialist

The first step in getting better is to visit your primary care physician, who will take your history and might run diagnostics such as a blood test, and an MRI, which requires preauthorization. If the treatment she prescribes isn’t enough to get you back to fighting form, it might be time to see a specialist.

“Because headaches are so common in the general population, my patients’ suffering is often downplayed by family and coworkers,” Dr. Ali says. “Once they get to a specialist, they’re quite surprised at how complex their condition is. No one has discussed their disease with them in such detail.”

Dr. Ali treats his patients on several fronts. The first is medical: oral medication, injections, supplements and procedures. There have been recent medical advancements, so you should talk to your doctor about what’s best for you.

The second front is encouraging patients to adopt a healthy lifestyle. This includes regular exercise, weight management, good sleep habits and managing stress. And finally, Dr. Ali addresses anxiety and depression, which are more common among headache sufferers. They don’t cause migraines, but relieving anxiety and depression seems to make headaches less frequent.

The secret to fewer headaches

To control your headaches, it’s important to eliminate known triggers. Get the right amount of sleep, manage your stress levels and avoid foods that bring on head pain. If it’s very clear that common culprits, like chocolate, citrus fruits and alcohol, are the causes, strike them from your diet.

However, Dr. Ali cautions against chasing after food triggers if it’s too difficult to determine what they are. “Rather than running food test after food test to figure out what’s causing their migraines, I encourage my patients to shift toward acceptance – and then getting on with making them go away,” Dr. Ali says. Once they focus on treatment over cause, he says, their headaches start to diminish.

Three-Step Treatment Plan

Dr. Ashhar Ali views his patients’ headaches as complex conditions and treats them on several fronts:

Number 1

Oral medication

Injections

Supplements

Procedures

Number 2

Regular exercise

Weight management

Good sleeping habits

Managing stress

Number 3

Address anxiety and depression

Categories: Get Healthy

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