Integrative Approaches to Treating Headaches
When Dr. David Rakel sees a patient who suffers from headaches, his first instinct isn't to prescribe a pill, but rather, to ask the patient, "What's new?"
That simple question can provide valuable insights into the headache's underlying cause.
"I think the most important thing for anybody with a headache is to learn from the symptom," said Rakel, director of UW Health's Integrative Medicine program.
Identifying Headache Triggers
Headaches generally have a simple symptom - pain. But treating the pain may not prevent the headaches from recurring. That's why it's important to identify the headache's triggers, which might be found by asking questions such as:
- Are you having relationship troubles?
- Are you stressed out from work?
- Are you having financial issues?
- Has your diet recently changed?
- Are you getting enough sleep?
- Is there anything new about your environment, either at home or at work?
By avoiding headache triggers, patients can raise their headache threshold.
Strategies for Reducing Headaches
Two common headache triggers are diet and stress. Here are integrative approaches to managing each.
Headaches may be prevented by avoiding foods with certain chemicals, such as tyramine, sulfites, MSG and aspartame. Foods that include these chemicals include:
- Caffeinated beverages
- Salty snacks
- Processed meats
- Alcohol, especially red wine
In general, choose young, fresh, natural foods, and avoid over-ripe and processed foods. It's also important to eat regular meals. Skipping meals can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar, which can trigger headaches.
For more information, view a Headache Elimination Diet (pdf) from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health's Department of Family Medicine.
A mind-body approach can help manage stress, which in turn can reduce headaches. One example is an abdominal breathing exercise, which can be done whenever a patient is experiencing pain or stress.
Rakel suggests the following four-step exercise:
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. When you take a deep breath in, the hand on the abdomen should rise higher than the one on the chest. This ensures that the diaphragm is pulling air into the bases of the lungs.
- After exhaling through your mouth, take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, allowing your mind to focus on the undersurface of the nose where the air enters the body. Inhale for a count of 4.
- Slowly exhale for a count of 6 to 8. As all the air is released with exhalation, gently contract your abdominal muscles to completely evacuate the remaining air in your lungs. It is important to remember that we deepen respirations by completely exhaling the air, rather than inhaling more of it.
- Repeat the cycle 19 times for a total of 20 deep breaths.
Learn more about this breathing exercise (pdf) from the Department of Family Medicine.
Date Published: 08/11/2011