One of our most revered faculty members, Lee Archer, MD, a neurologist, provided a copy of the handout he gives to his headache patients. With his permission, I adapted it for use with my own patients. I thought it was so good that I asked him if I could publish it on my blog so that others could benefit from his advice.
Headaches are incredibly common and usually frustrating for providers. It has become increasingly evident that chronic or frequently occurring headaches are often virtually impossible to identify as either “migraine” or “tension” headaches and often simply are called “chronic headaches”. Treatment often becomes a revolving door of trying new medications that sometimes work, but more commonly don’t. And, even worse, many headache patients gradually simply become dependent on addictive pain medications just to try to cope with their often daily discomfort.
But, there are some really basic things about dealing with chronic headaches that we should never forget to try. So, without further ado, here is his advice:
Ten Steps to Overcoming Your Headaches
There are some things that everyone can do to help their headaches. There are a number of things you can besides just take medication to help their headaches. If someone follows all of these directions, the need for prescription medication is often dramatically reduced if not eliminated.
1. First and foremost, taking pain medication everyday is definitely not a good idea. Daily pain medication tends to perpetuate headaches. This is true for over-the-counter medications like Excedrin and BC powders, as well as prescription medications like Fiorinal, Midrin, and “triptans” like Imitrex, Zomig, Relpax, Frova, etc. Exactly why this occurs is unclear, but it is a well established clinical finding. Anyone who takes pain medications more than twice a week is in danger of perpetuating their headaches. Occasional usage of pain medications several times in one week is permissible, as long as it is not a regular pattern. For instance, using pain medication several days in a row during the perimenstrual period is certainly permissible.
2. Regular exercise helps reduce headaches. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins in the brain. These are chemicals that actually suppress pain. I encourage people to aim for at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise (like walking or swimming) five days a week if not daily. In addition to helping reduce headaches, this also will prolong your life because of the beneficial effects on your heart.
3. Stress reduction is a definite benefit in reducing headache frequency and severity. Headaches are not caused by stress alone, but can make most headaches worse. There are no easy answers for how to reduce stress. If it is severe, we can consider referral to a therapist for help.
4. Too much or too little sleep can trigger headaches. Pay attention to this, and note whether or not you are tending to trigger headaches from sleeping too little or too much. People differ as to how much sleep is “right” for them.
5. Caffeine can precipitate headaches. I encourage patients to try stopping caffeine altogether for a few weeks, and we can decide together whether or not caffeine might be contributing. Abruptly stopping all caffeine can trigger headaches, too, so try to taper off over a week.
6. NutraSweet (aspartame) can cause headaches in some people. If you are drinking multiple servings/day of beverages containing NutraSweet you might consider trying to stop that, and see if your headaches respond.
7. There are some other foods they may trigger headaches in some people. Usually people learn this very quickly. For instance, red wine will precipitate migraines in many people, and chocolate, nuts, hot dogs and Chinese food triggers headaches in certain cases. I generally don’t advise omitting all of these foods, unless you notice a pattern where these foods are causing headaches.
8. If I give you a prophylactic medication for headaches, you should take it daily, as prescribed. If you have trouble tolerating it, please let me know and we can consider using something else. No prophylactic medication works in every patient with headaches. Generally, each of the medications works in only about 60% of people. Therefore, it is not uncommon to need to try more than one medication in any given patient. We must give any of these medications at least four to six weeks to work before giving up on them. It generally takes that long to be sure whether or not a medication is going to work.
9. Keep a calendar of your headaches. Use a standard calendar and mark the days that you have a headache, how severe it is on a scale of one to ten, what you took for it and how long it lasted. Also note anything that you think could have precipitated it. By keeping this over time we can tell if our efforts are helping.
10. Riboflavin (vitamin B2) 400mg daily helps prevent migraines in many people. It comes in 100mg size tablets, so you will need to take four of them each day. You can add it to anything else we try. You do not need a prescription for it.
Do you have chronic headaches? If so, I challenge you to apply these ten principles, then come back and provide a comment on this blog post!
Thanks and good luck!
* MedHelp note - For #9, you can track your headaches using the Migraine & Headache tracker at http://www.medhelp.org/trackers/list/89
*This blog post was originally published at eDocAmerica*