Chronic headaches are a common ailment affecting millions of people worldwide. However, when headaches become a regular part of life, they can transform from a minor nuisance into a chronic condition that requires professional attention. More importantly, it can affect all aspects of a person’s life and change how they go about their day.
Chronic headache treatments are an ever-evolving pursuit for most patients, as treatments can vary in how impactful they are and for how long they last. Sadly, most patients don’t have the baseline knowledge to ask the question to find the answers they’re looking for genuinely. This is why patient education is vital for overcoming chronic headaches.
Let’s start with the basics, discussing chronic headaches and their impact on your health.
What Are Chronic Headaches?
Chronic headaches are defined as headaches that occur on 15 or more days per month for three months or longer. They can start on their own and get triggered by stress, prolonged postures, and traumatic injuries like concussions. Chronic headaches can also be aggravated and caused by underlying autoimmunities and chronic inflammation. Sadly, traditional Western medicine providers rarely address most of these underlying issues.
Medications may eliminate symptoms, but they rarely treat the underlying root cause.
Unlike occasional headaches, chronic headaches can significantly impact a person’s quality of life, making daily activities challenging and, in some cases, impossible to perform. As previously stated, they can be debilitating in nature and change how an individual lives.
There are several types of chronic headaches, with tension-type headaches and migraines being the most common.
Patients often describe tension-type headaches as a constant, dull ache on both sides of the head. Some also report moments of throbbing or stabbing pain when severe enough and when caused by an initial injury.
Patients often describe the pain as tension over the forehead, temples, and sides of the head. Tightness along the base of the skull and neck/shoulder region usually accompanies these symptoms. Tension headaches can be triggered by various environmental factors, with stress being the most common reason.
Migraines, on the other hand, are usually more severe in nature and can be accompanied by other symptoms like nausea/vomiting, light sensitivity, and visual disturbances. Patients typically report a sharp shooting pain on one side of the head, with a small subset having pain bilaterally. People who suffer from migraines can have an array of triggers and environmental sensitivities, which is why they are so challenging to treat. Sadly, migraines are far more common in women than men.
For an in-depth overview of migraines, check out our blog post to learn more (INSERT UNDERSTANDING MIGRAINE HEADACHE SYMPTOMS ARTICLE LINK HERE).
Causes of Chronic Headaches
The exact cause of chronic headaches and migraines can vary, which is why each person requires an individualized treatment plan specifically tailored to their needs.
Clinically, we’ve also seen hormonal imbalances and visual issues be a common problem for patients struggling with chronic headaches as well.
Finding the cause of chronic headaches is essential for creating an appropriate individualized treatment plan. Because of this, patients must work with providers who have experience treating these conditions.
Even more importantly, seeing a doctor who can provide at-home therapies and exercises to instill long-term habit changes is vital.
Diagnosing Your Headache
Diagnosing chronic headaches should involve the following:
- A thorough medical history.
- An in-depth neurological and physical examination.
- Clinical experience from a medical provider.
Depending on your health history, your healthcare provider may recommend additional tests, such as MRI or CT scans, to rule out other potential causes.
Sadly, most medical imaging will be normal and rarely show overt signs of structural dysfunction. Just because your imaging comes back normal doesn’t mean there isn’t something that can’t be done.
Most patients who make their way into our clinic have normal imaging findings. And when their providers don’t know where to turn, patients are told there’s nothing to be done for them.
We’ve shown time and time again that this isn’t the case and have been able to help many patients in this situation before. Once again, since each person is different, they will each require an individualized treatment plan to find success.
Chronic Headache Treatment Options
Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and acetaminophen, are often the first line of treatment. However, for those with more severe or frequent headaches, prescription medications may be necessary. These can include triptans for migraines or preventative medications like beta-blockers.
Yet, while medications can help alleviate symptoms, they rarely ever address the root problem of what is causing chronic headaches and migraines in the first place. Drugs are great at managing symptoms, but as previously listed, they’re rarely a long-term fix.
Chronic headaches can significantly improve with the proper habits and changes in your life. Modifying your lifestyle can dramatically impact chronic headaches and treat the root cause once discovered.
Regular physical exercise, adequate hydration, a balanced diet, and proper sleep hygiene are all crucial for treating chronic headaches and migraines.
Stress management techniques, such as yoga, meditation, and deep belly breathing, can also be beneficial, as they all impact the brain and underlying causes of chronic headache symptoms.
Manual & Myofascial Therapy
Multiple environmental factors impact chronic headaches, specifically regarding the structure and tone of our musculature. Manual therapy can be an effective treatment for chronic headaches, particularly those caused by muscular tension or postural issues.
Medical providers like chiropractors and physical therapists can help design a program tailored to your specific needs. Regardless of the type of doctor, the best ones will give you exercises and therapies to do at home so you can keep improving between visits.
Simple techniques such as myofascial release and basic postural stability exercises can significantly impact chronic headaches and provide symptomatic relief. As long as patients stick to their treatment plan and do the work required, the dividends can pay off greatly.
While chronic headaches appear to be driven by structural abnormalities and stress, there is plenty of evidence to show that visual issues can significantly influence their onset and presentation as well. These factors are even more critical with patients who have a history of concussions.
Visual therapy is physical therapy for the eyes. It helps people optimize their eye’s ability to visually track moving targets, properly judge depth and distance, and keep their eyes steady on a single target.
Although this may seem trivial, it can have profound impacts on chronic headaches and migraines. Recent research shows that visual dysfunction is an underlying factor for neurodevelopmental disorders as well.
We’ve done visual therapy with thousands of patients and have seen tremendous improvements in their overall function when underlying visual issues are addressed and properly rehabilitated.
Your eyes are a window into the brain. They can tell highly-trained medical providers a lot about the quality of your brain and central nervous system.
For those who can’t find relief with traditional Western medicine treatments, you may find relief through integrative therapies like acupuncture, biofeedback, and electrotherapy modalities like Vagal Nerve Stimulation (VNS).
While the effectiveness of these treatments can vary, they are worth considering. This is specially true for those who have yet to find symptomatic relief and are specifically looking for non-pharmacological options.
Vagal Nerve Stimulation (VNS) is becoming an exciting field of interest for many reasons. While the literature is still growing, there is much to be optimistic about, especially its use in treating cluster headaches and migraines.
Headache Treatment: Who Should I See?
Chronic headaches can be debilitating. If you’re experiencing frequent or severe headaches with little to no relief, you must consult a healthcare professional. This is also true for those who have already tried the available treatments with their traditional medical doctor and are still looking for answers.
It’s even more critical if your headaches are accompanied by other symptoms like vision changes, difficulty speaking, or weakness. These symptoms constitute a medical emergency and an immediate visit to an emergency room!
Experienced providers who understand how to treat chronic headaches know the importance of integrating therapies and modalities to create a personalized treatment plan for their patients.
Since every patient has different triggers, causes, and lifestyles, each person will require different treatments.
As we’ve stated in previous articles, we’re usually the last in line for patients when they feel they’ve tried everything else. It’s common for us to be the 5th, 10th, or even 20th doctor they’ve worked with.
Chronic Headaches Don’t Have To Be Your Normal
Chronic headaches can be debilitating, but with the right approach, they can be managed effectively. Integration is essential, and individualized treatments can quickly improve your quality of life.
By understanding the types of headaches, their causes, and the various treatment options available, you can take the first step toward finding relief and improving your quality of life.
And if you’re still looking for answers to your questions, we’re here to support you. Click the link below to schedule a complimentary consultation with one of our providers!
*Note: The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and does not constitute a doctor-patient relationship. Patients are advised to consult their medical provider or primary care physician before trying any remedies or therapies at home.