Headaches and migraines are a pain, but they aren’t always caused by the head or neck. Understanding the brain can help you better understand why you’re still dealing with them.
Headaches are one of the most common and debilitating neurological conditions in the world.
The World Health Organization estimates roughly 50% of living adults worldwide have experienced at least one headache in the past year, with nearly 18% of respondents stating they suffer from multiple headaches and migraines a month.
These statistics become even more troubling when one realizes that migraines are the sixth highest cause of years lost due to disability (YLD). And headaches top the scale, coming in at the third-highest cause of YLD.
In the United States, 15% of adults suffer from severe headaches or migraines, affecting women twice as often as men. Having a prior history of headaches before an injury is an additional risk factor for headaches following a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
And for the most part, they’re poorly managed and treated. We spend nearly $1 billion on unnecessary brain imaging for primary headache disorders, which unfortunately wastes people’s time, money, and energy.
So why are headaches and migraines so prevalent in our society? What do we need to do to solve this crisis? And most importantly, how can you find solutions for your headaches?
We’re happy you asked!
To truly solve this problem, we need to dive deeper into understanding the brain and body’s complexities.
1.) Trauma Changes Our Nervous System
Trauma can come in all shapes and sizes. When we stress the brain and body, it inevitably affects us physically, mentally, emotionally, and everywhere in between. Trauma changes the way our brains perceive our environment and can affect every system we operate on, which is why it is so essential to understand the complicated relationship between the brain and body.
A few weeks ago, we spoke to a prospective patient who is a D1 volleyball player and Junior Olympian for the United States. Her story started with a simple hit in the head with a volleyball 2 years ago, and she has been on an endless pursuit of finding answers as to why she is having persistent head, neck, and shoulder pain.
On top of that, her symptoms have gradually changed over time, moving from R sided head pain to pain localized to only one side of the head. She’s also started to experience symptoms of dizziness while driving in a car, periods of nausea, and sensitivity to busy visual environments, which were never an issue for her before the injury.
Sadly, she’s seen a plethora of doctors from various specialties with minimal long term results or relief. And unfortunately, this happens far too often.
While diagnostic imaging may be useful in diagnosing brain bleeds, tumors, and congenital venous malformations, its ability to diagnose or provide benefit for those who suffer from long-term headaches is quite slim, especially when paired with a “normal” neurological examination.
The brain’s neural networks change with trauma, causing negative alterations in simple head-eye reflexes, balance and stability, muscle recruitment patterns, memory, and cognitive processing. Patients can also experience difficulty sleeping, digestive issues, visual clarity changes, altered depth perception, and simply feeling “off” overall.
Coordination between the visual system (eyes), inner ear (vestibular) system, and proprioceptive (muscles/joints) systems can also become skewed, confusing the brain and nervous system as to how to appropriately respond to environmental changes.
For most patients who make their way into our office, this is ground zero for finding solutions to these complex problems, especially in those chronic and debilitating headaches that most post-concussion patients experience.
Understanding how the brain changes with trauma can give us a vast array of tools and potential options for therapies to improve brain function and alleviate pain symptoms.
2.) Uncontrolled Inflammation Promotes Pain, For Better, For Worse
Inflammation has been given a bad wrap for quite some time, for a good reason.
Although it’s acutely necessary to repair tissue and heal wounds, chronic and unwavering inflammation throughout the brain and body is never good. It prematurely ages our cells, clogs up our internal tissue repair mechanisms, changes our DNA expression and ability to properly fold proteins, and signals other cells in the body to stop working and/or die.
Inflammation is also a very efficient promoter of pain within the brain and body.
Following a concussion, there are well-established neuro-inflammatory cascades that occur within tissues, creating a storm of mechanisms that alter our autonomic responses (“fight or flight”) and damage our immune system’s ability to properly function.
This inflammatory process also creates holes in the tightly regulated barriers within the gut, the lungs, and brain. When these barriers become compromised, the body is left defenseless to common infections and bacteria, rendering the immune system weak and vulnerable.
Positive-feedback loops form between these pro-inflammatory pathways that promote greater inflammation and pain levels, further promoting more pain-inducing chemicals, broken barriers, and rapid loss of neurons and cells.
Unfortunately, this process happens behind the scenes and can difficult to disrupt with traditional forms of medications, surgeries, or even manual therapies.
In many cases, individuals suffering from headaches and migraines often see their pain patterns correlated with menstrual cycles, food choices, visual environments, and sleep quality.
These factors play a significant role in the onset and triggering of headaches because they affect the inflammatory pathways and circadian rhythms that dictate proper neurological function.
Providers looking to successfully treat chronic headaches need to consider these complex secondary inflammatory outcomes by understanding the importance of sleep, physical exercise, and the influence of dietary changes as they alter these disruptive cycles of pain-inducing inflammation.
3.) Diet Dictates Brain Function
It should come as no surprise that the foods you eat will be used as the raw materials to build your brain and body. The quality and content of your food choices will drastically change the way your body functions, which is why not all foods are created equally.
There is currently much debate over whether or not dietary supplements and/or specific nutrients can improve head pain and post-concussion headaches. But while there are articles that yield inconclusive findings, others show promising outcomes with various combinations of dietary interventions, including the use of supplements like omega-3 fatty acids, turmeric, resveratrol, melatonin, creatine, and magnesium.
While supplementation may still have a way to go, dietary changes will always be the most efficient and effective way to alter your brain and body, vastly improving your chances of eliminating those pesky headaches and migraines.
Changing the foods you eat is essential, but we’re also finding out how often you eat food may have an even more significant impact on your overall health and healing.
Although fasting has been around for centuries, it has had a recent resurrection in the medical literature and public eye for its effectiveness in facilitating healing and recovery in nearly all health categories.
Intermittent Fasting (IF) has also become a hot topic in the brain injury and concussion communities for its proposed effectiveness in optimizing healing times and controlling unwanted inflammation.
For most of the patients making their way into the clinic with headaches and migraines, we will suggest a trial period of at least 2-4 weeks of intermittent fasting 2-3 days/week for 16-18 hours to dampen these underlying inflammatory processes and create an optimal metabolic environment for rehabilitation and healing.
This is by no means a silver bullet, but it is an excellent start towards changing eating behavior and brain function.
It All Comes Down to Individuality
At the end of the day, philosophy can only take us so far. At some point, we need to start implementing strategies and interventions to find solutions.
Knowledge will always be useless without application, which is why we find ourselves spending large amounts of time listening to our patients tell their stories, share past experiences, and discuss what they’ve tried in the past.
At The Neural Connection, we maintain a specialized network of individuals and providers willing to go above and beyond the regular call of duty to find answers to these complex and debilitating problems.
Utilizing individualized metabolic labs, objective diagnostic testing, and comprehensive screening tools have made it possible for us to help those deemed helpless by other medical providers and clinics.
And if we don’t think we can help someone, we find those who we believe can.
If you’re still struggling with chronic headaches and migraines, please know there is help out there!
You just need to find it. And we would love to help you do just that!