Columnist's Note: This column represents Part Two in a two-part series on battling migraines. Part One, which was published in the July 22 edition of The Advocate, focused on the societal costs of migraine headaches and the effectiveness of massage therapy to treat them. Part Two will explore additional methods of battling migraines and chronic headaches.
Q: "My husband has had continuous low-grade headaches for about two years. He's seen a neurologist the past few months and at her encouragement has tried physical therapy and acupuncture, and has had tests run to rule out anything 'major.' The neurologist has suggested he try eliminating certain foods to see if one or more of them might be the problem. So far he's only eliminated artificial sweeteners and it has made no difference. Do you think it would be worthwhile for him to try massage therapy?" — Diane E., Finksburg.
A: Based on personal experience, and the success I've had using massage therapy to treat migraine headaches, I'd absolutely recommend trying massage therapy. Not only does massage therapy effectively relax tight muscles in the back, neck and scalp that can lead to headaches, it also reduces stress — a common headache trigger.
Incidentally, the healing power and overall benefits of human touch have led to the opening of several "cuddle shops" around the country, including Tender Embrace scheduled to open in Linthicum Aug. 31. According to owner Robert Andrews, a cuddle shop is "designed to be a relaxing and stress-releasing environment."
Andrews also notes that "platonic touch can be considered a therapeutic treatment" that offers a wide range of health benefits including decreasing stress, reducing PTSD suffering, and improving self-esteem.
In addition to massage therapy, there are many healthy lifestyle habits and natural remedies that can reduce the frequency and severity of migraines and chronic headaches, sometimes even nipping them in the bud before they begin.
One of the most important steps is to identify headache triggers. Keeping a daily journal detailing what you were doing and what foods you were eating when your headache commenced is a good place to start. Also, recording the amount of sleep you've had and noting any stressful events that have occurred can also be helpful.
According to headache specialist Deborah Friedman, half of her migraine patients can identify foods that bring on their migraines. So, if you suspect a specific food or drink might be triggering your headaches, an elimination diet might help identify the culprits.
The most common triggers are aged cheeses and aged, smoked or cured meats, chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, artificial sweeteners, MSG, bread, dried fruits, chips, pizza, peanuts and chicken livers.
You should also be consistent with your diet and eat meals at regular intervals, as fasting or skipping meals can cause fluctuations in blood sugar and increase your risk for headaches.
Mayoclinic.org notes that migraines are often triggered by a poor night's sleep, so establishing regular sleep hours and getting an adequate amount of rest could help reduce your chances of suffering a migraine.
Stress is another common migraine trigger, so managing stress is key to avoiding headaches. Mayoclinic.org recommends simplifying your life, managing your time wisely, maintaining a positive attitude, taking a break and making time to enjoy yourself, and relaxing to combat stress.
Gretchen Tietjen, neurologist and director of the University of Toledo's Headache Treatment and Research Program, said "daily exercise appears to be very helpful for many people with migraines, especially when they begin the day with it."
Tietjen recommends that migraine patients aim for moderate daily exercise, noting that yoga has been found to be particularly beneficial.
However, be sure to stay well-hydrated, as dehydration is another common headache trigger. According to top10homeremedies.com, simply drinking a glass of water or an electrolyte-rich sports drink at the first sign of a headache, and taking small sips throughout the day, is an easy way to get relief from a dehydration-induced headache.
Additional natural headache remedies include gently pressing the webbed area between your thumb and index finger, placing an ice pack on your forehead, applying heat to your neck, drinking lemon water or ginger tea, eating or simply smelling green apples, inhaling steam from hot water with several tablespoons of apple cider vinegar added, and massaging your temples with peppermint or eucalyptus oil.
As this is my last column for The Advocate, I'd like to take a moment to wish my readers a lifetime of fitness, good health and much happiness. Special thanks go out to those who sent emails with questions or feedback for this column; it was greatly appreciated and I enjoyed hearing from you. My column, For the Fun of Fit, will continue to appear every other Sunday in the sports section of the Carroll County Times. You can also visit my Facebook page, Triathlon Mom, at www.facebook.com/triathlonmama.