Headaches: Understand what can catch you off guard

Ingy Deif, Tuesday 28 Feb 2012

For some the phrase 'crippling headache may be accurate as a bad headache can get in the way of everything; Ahram Online probes further into the mystery of headaches and migraines


It could be a perfectly normal beginning of a day for 35-year-old assistant manager Hoda Abdel-Hadi, the schedule of the day already set and going smoothly, final steps towards an impending deadline or a meeting within the hour – and then everything stops all of a sudden when the nightmare of a crippling headache sets in.

"Nothing keeps me from not going to work, fever, illness, social circumstances  are things I can handle more or less, but when a one sided migraine hits me with the nausea and extreme sensitivity to the faintest sound and light that comes with it, that could keep me locked up in a dark room!"She says.

Needless to say, she is not one of a kind, and whether it is a migraine of that sort of throbbing pain, or a severe headache causing a constant and dull ache, most of us suffer not knowing the reason or trigger.

Reasons and treatment

“Headaches are one of the most common complaints,” Dr. Ahmed Abdel-Alim, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Cairo University says." From tension headaches to migraine cluster headaches and chronic daily headaches, the impact on daily living activities varies widely according to cause, severity and frequency,” he says. Dr. Ahmed Abdel-Alim  lists a number of simple causes of headaches – anxiety, sleep problems, drug intake, eye problems, hypertension – as well as more serious ones, such as brain tumours and brain vessels diseases.

Even if not serious, headaches can cause suffering and significant interruption of normal activities of daily living. Dr Abdel-Alim strongly recommends that if a headache is associated with increasing frequency or severity, or with other symptoms such as vomiting, blurred vision, or fainting attacks, one should immediately seek neurological advice.

“If a neurologist finds it necessary, he might investigate of the cause of headache by performing a computerized tomography scan (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain,” says Dr Abdel-Alim,”and upon the diagnosis, the treatment may vary, with special emphasis paid to the probable cause or factor involved.”

He stresses that extra caution should be taken into consideration when it comes to treatment with painkillers which should be used within limits due to their side effects and the fact that they may even cause headaches if overused. He strongly advises those who suffer from headaches to introduce lifestyle alterations, in addition to meditation and relaxation therapy, which can cause a relief in certain types of headache such as those caused by tension.

Relaxation is a must

“Absolutely true,” agrees yoga trainer and life-coaching expert Hala Khattar, "The art of yoga and meditation can do wonders for those suffering from daily stresses and tensions which are the principal causes of most kinds of headaches.” Khattar says any kind of relaxation therapy, yoga or meditation will have an impact. She suggests starting by “dedicating ten minutes of your day to sitting in a quieter place, inhaling and exhaling deeply and slowly while focusing your eyes on a faraway spot and your mind on the amount of oxygen overwhelming your body, and whenever your mind drifts into thinking of problems, simply steer it back to the simple process of breathing.”

Keeping a headache diary in which the person keeps track of stress levels, quantity of work and sleep, and what was eaten or drunk before headache attacks, in addition to the severity and frequency of the headaches, can help identity patterns and perhaps, says Khattar, certain foods avoided.

Food and headaches

When it comes to the link between food and drink as triggers of headaches, Dr Fawzi El-Shobaki, Professor of Nutrition at the National Research Centre couldn’t agree more. "Calcium is an element that relaxes the muscles of the shoulders and neck, while magnesium stabilizes blood vessel walls, and foods containing an amino acid called tryptophan can also help. On the other hand, foods rich in tyramine and nitrates are known as possible causes or triggers.”

Dr El-Shobaki lists possible headache triggers as follows:

Old cheese, beverages rich in caffeine, artificial sweeteners especially Aspartame, red wine, chocolate, monosodium glutamate found abundantly in Chinese food and artificial broth, peanuts and processed meat.

And he recommends the following foods which may lessen headaches:

Calcium-rich foods such as broccoli, magnesium-rich foods such as spinach, tryptophan-rich foods such as walnuts, almonds, duck, turkey, whole grains and sesame. Peppermint and ginger can relieve nausea that comes with headaches, and fish can be very useful as it contains easy digested proteins, as the inability to digest protein has been identified as a possible cause of headaches.

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