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Combining Eastern and Western Medicine in the Treatment of Headaches - Part 1

by Catherine Kurosu, MD, LAc, October 15, 2018

Twenty-three years ago, when Louise was pregnant for the first time, her truck was broadsided and jettisoned over an embankment. The force of the crash caused a severe neck injury and sent Louise into preterm labor. Her daughter was born eight weeks early, but grew from a sweet baby into a beautiful young woman, as though the accident had never happened. For Louise, however, life was much different. She counted herself very fortunate that she was not paralyzed, but the neck injury resulted in decades of headaches of various sorts. The worst were the migraines, which occurred up to eighteen times per month. Then there were the tension headaches related to muscle spasm in her neck. Louise had tried everything that Western medicine had to offer, but it was not until she incorporated Eastern healing practices into her care that the headaches were controlled.

We have all suffered through a headache at some time in our lives. Whether your headaches are intermittent and mildly annoying or frequent and excruciating, their cause may or may not have been obvious. In Louise's case, the cause was clear. Physical trauma can result in lifelong headaches, but the origins of most headaches are not always apparent. Some headaches are started by muscle spasm in the scalp, neck, and back. Others are associated with blood flow changes or abnormal pressure within the brain. Yet others can be symptoms of infections, hormonal changes, or chronic medical conditions.

Some people have headache syndromes that are so debilitating that their activities of daily living are adversely affected. They are in so much pain that they can't go to work or participate in family events. These people may not be able to eat or sleep normally. They may become dependent on medications that can actually perpetuate the headache cycle.

Acute and Chronic Headaches

From a Western perspective, headaches can be divided into two categories: acute and chronic. Examples of acute headaches include those that are associated with viral or bacterial infections. Infections such as the flu can affect the whole body. When you have the flu, headache is one of the symptoms that go along with muscle aches, sore throat or a runny nose. Some infections can cause headaches when they lodge in certain parts of the body such as the nasal sinuses, the ear, or the jaw. If a headache is associated with fever, neck stiffness, or altered level of consciousness, it is imperative that you seek medical attention. You may have meningitis or encephalitis. These are life-threatening conditions that affect the structures within the brain and spinal cord.

Other extremely serious causes of acute headaches include bleeding from vessels in the brain (known as a brain hemorrhage) or severely high blood pressure (known as a hypertensive crisis). Brain tumors, which are rare, may cause acute headaches if bleeding occurs around or within the tumor, increasing pressure within the brain. Tumors can also cause chronic headaches as they grow in size. If you experience a headache that starts suddenly and feels like the worst pain you've ever had in your life, you should seek medical help immediately. Though uncommon, you might be having a brain hemorrhage. Your life could depend on it.

Of course, the vast majority of headaches are chronic and are not life-threatening.  It is estimated that 90 percent of people who suffer from chronic headaches have this condition due to muscle tension (tension headache), blood vessel spasm (migraine), or a combination of the two. These two categories of headaches can have dozens of different causes and affect millions of Americans.  With respect to chronic migraines, approximately 12 percent of the population suffers with these debilitating headaches.   This results in a loss of workplace productivity that has been estimated to reach $24 billion a year.

Actual Cause

The tricky part of treating chronic headaches, from both an Eastern and Western perspective is determining the actual cause. It is a great help to your healthcare provider if you can do a lot of detective work before you come to the office. By paying close attention and keeping a journal, you may be able to tell exactly what triggers your headaches. Is it certain foods? Certain smells? Particular locations? If so, you may have environmental sensitivities. Are the headaches caused by sleep deprivation, emotional situations, or following an accident?

Do you wake up with headaches? Do you grind your teeth at night? If you answered yes to these two questions, you may have Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome (TMJ).
Are your headaches related to particular times of the day, the month, or the year? Women may experience recurring headaches that are tied to their menstrual cycle and are caused by hormonal changes. Seasonal changes may cause headaches due to the allergen content in the air you breathe.

What other medical conditions do you have? Headache is a common component of many chronic diseases such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and Lyme Disease.

The answers to all these questions will help your health care practitioner get to the root of the problem. Together, you can determine the best strategies to decrease the frequency and intensity of your headaches.

If specific environmental triggers are noted, then avoiding that food, perfume, or chemical is the obvious answer.  In fact, a dietary cause for headache is found in up to 20 percent of sufferers.  If food sensitivities are suspected and you haven't been able to figure out exactly which food is the culprit, you may want to try eliminating foods that are known to cause headaches in some people.

Foods to avoid include:

  • wheat and other gluten-containing grains such as oats, rye, and barley
  • milk products
  • soy and processed foods made with soy protein 
  • monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • processed foods containing nitrates, like cold cuts and hot dogs
  • peanuts and other tree nuts like walnuts, pecans, and almonds
  • PLUS any food that you believe may be a trigger for your headaches

It seems as though there is nothing left for you to eat, however, there are plenty of lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, and gluten-free grains to fill the void. Grains that could be used in this diet would include rice, wild rice, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat.

Once you have stocked your pantry with the allowed foods, you can eat unlimited amounts of them and keep a daily diary of what you are consuming and how you feel.

Note the severity, frequency, and timing of your headaches and whether you are having them at all. After a couple of weeks, if you are not symptom-free, try to determine if there is any connection between your headaches and the foods you are still eating. If you are still consuming caffeine and sugar, try to eliminate those, too. If your headaches are triggered by foods, your symptoms should improve over the following two weeks. Schedule a follow up appointment with your healthcare provider to review the results of your dietary changes. Although this process seems tedious, this kind of detective work and keen observation can lead to amazing improvements in your well-being.

The above is Part 1 of an original article by Catherine Kurosu, MD, LAc and co-author of True Wellness: How to Combine the Best of Western and Eastern Medicine for Optimal Health.



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