At their best, headaches are merely annoying. At their worst, they are throbbing nightmares that put your life on hold for hours, or even days, at a time. Surveys show that nearly 75 percent of Americans suffer occasional headaches, and the National Pain Foundation says that headaches rack up approximately $30 billion in medical expenses each year. But if you can identify what type of headaches you suffer from, you can effectively treat and even prevent them—often without pain medication. Use this cheat sheet to identify the likely cause of your headaches and find the best natural solutions.
Symptoms: “A tension headache is a moderate, dull ache,” explains Betsy Pepper, MD, a specialist with the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago. It’s a squeezing pain that usually strikes the temples or back of head and neck.
Causes: Stress, hormone fluctuations, poor sleep habits, dehydration, or the drop in blood sugar that results from skipping a meal. This is the most common type of headache, affecting 65 percent of men and more than 80 percent of women.
Natural fixes: Tension headaches caused by stress are best treated with acupuncture, massage, spinal manipulation, and stress reduction techniques. A 2009 review of studies concluded that acupuncture is a valuable alternative treatment for people suffering from frequent tension headaches.
Symptoms: They are usually characterized as throbbing pain on one side of the head, and are often accompanied by neurological symptoms such as sensitivity to light and sound, says Pepper. It’s not unusual for migraine sufferers to also experience nausea or vomiting, she says. Migraines are less common but more severe than tension headaches.
Causes: Migraines may stem from a neurological disorder, but more than any other headache type, they can be triggered by diet. Common culprits? “Anything that contains nitrates, such as preserved meats,” Pepper says. Other culprits include histamines in beer, wine, fish, and fermented foods, as well as a chemical called tyramine found in cheeses and pickled foods. Also on the no-no list: dark soy sauce (or anything with MSG), sour cream, peanut butter, chocolate, and avocado. It’s not uncommon for women to experience migraines during menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause.
Natural fixes: Pepper says the first thing she has migraine patients do is keep a food calendar or journal to identify potential triggers. If that doesn’t yield answers, the next step is to do an elimination diet to identify which foods activate your migraines. First, cut out the foods listed above for several weeks. Then, once you’re headache-free, add back your favorite foods one at a time. If you don’t experience migraines while eating a particular food for three days, you’ll know it isn’t a trigger for you. Drops in blood sugar can also set off migraines, so Pepper suggests eating several small meals throughout the day and never skipping meals. Another good idea: Cut down on processed carbohydrates and sugars to help prevent sudden blood sugar spikes and drops. Like tension headaches, migraines also may be prevented and treated with vitamin B supplements. Co-Q10 supplements may also help (take 50–150 mg daily). In addition, the herb feverfew has been shown to prevent migraines in at least one study.
Symptoms: Fluid buildup in the sinus leads to pain felt across the cheekbones, nose bridge, or behind the eyes that is often accompanied by fever. In severe cases, sinus infections can put pressure on the jaw and nerves at the base of the teeth, causing throbbing toothaches.
Causes: Infections and/or inflammation of the sinuses.
Natural fixes: The glut of products marketed for sinus-pain relief may be misleading consumers to believe sinus headaches are more common than they actually are. In fact, without having a CT scan, it’s difficult for a doctor to know for certain if you’re suffering a true sinus headache, Pepper says. As a result, some migraine sufferers mistakenly believe they have sinus problems. “The vast majority of sinus headaches are most likely a variation of a migraine,” says Steven Y. Park, MD, clinical assistant professor of otolaryngology (i.e., a branch of medicine that specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of head and neck disorders) at the New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York. Sinus infections that don’t clear up within a week or so may be bacterial in nature and therefore require antibiotics, but there are measures you can take to prevent sinus inflammation (and the resulting headaches) in the first place. Stay well hydrated to keep fluids moving through your sinus cavities. And stock up on immune-boosting foods such as citrus fruits and dark leafy greens, as well as infection-fighting compounds such as garlic. Using a neti pot to flush out your sinuses can be helpful.
When to call your doctor
• Your headaches appear out of nowhere and are so severe that they routinely prevent you from completing daily tasks.
• Pain is impairing your quality of life and interrupting your work.
• Headaches have become more frequent and/or more severe over time.
• Without a history of headaches, you start getting them in your fifties or older. Late-onset headaches are less common and may indicate more serious health problems, Pepper says.