Headaches have affected my life since I was in my teens. In university, I had neck stiffness and headaches often. I could never find a comfortable position for my head and neck while studying at my desk, sitting in lecture halls or trying to fall asleep. Stress, long hours of studying, irregular sleep hours and lack of exercise weren’t helping. So I hoped that after undergrad, when I took some time off to travel, things would feel better.

That wasn’t the case. My headaches changed from a tension headache to a throbbing headache that seemed to ramp up from nowhere and last the whole day sometimes continuing to the next. No hours of studying, no deadlines and loving my travel experiences I still struggled dividing my attention between the head pain and the rest of life. I had a sledge hammer pounding inside of my head but no one else could see what was happening. 

How could other people relate to something they couldn’t see?

Do you have recurrent headaches? Do certain foods or smells trigger a headache? Do certain times of stress or times of your cycle seem to be linked? Headaches can be linked to head injury, common colds, sinus issues, dental issues, poor sleep, stress, relief from stress and caffeine withdrawal. They can also be linked to less obvious issues like certain foods, irregular eating patterns, hormones fluctuations and even weather changes. Often it’s hard to make any connections at all.

Headaches are very common affecting almost half of adults. While there are many types of headaches, tension headaches and migraine headaches are the most common types I see in my practice. Tension headaches are related to muscle tightness around neck and head whereas migraine headaches can be throbbing pain usually on one side of the head and often occurs with other symptoms like nausea, light or sound sensitivity, visual disturbances (aura) and dizziness. Migraines can last a few hours to a few days. Interestingly, 85% of migraine sufferers are women.

Migraines can severely impact life, from productivity at work to simply enjoying a bright sunny day. According to Migraine Canada, migraines are one of the leading causes of missed work days. In addition, those with chronic migraines report an average of 40 days per year of being at work but not able to function normally. This shows how debilitating migraines can be and reveals the lack of support and understanding patients feel around their migraines.

Medications can help us “get through the day” but the short term gain can be at a cost to long term health. Acetaminophen (ie. Tylenol) is known to reduce our ability to protect ourselves from inflammation and brain inflammation contributes to headaches. Common migraine medications can provide relief from the intensity of the migraine pain, but increases the likelihood of getting rebound headaches increasing the need for more medication.

Our current understanding of migraines is that there’s a chain of events that is triggered in the brain and it amplifies itself disrupting our pain sensory systems. Much like a short circuit causes the fire alarm to go off without a fire, we feel pain, even without an injury. Activating this brain system stimulates changes in blood flow and nerve function in the brain.

So what triggers this chain of events? It appears that there are multiple factors that contribute to activating these pain pathways in the brain. Like filling up a bucket, these factors can build up until finally a threshold is reached, the bucket overflows, and a chain of events leads to the experience of head pain.

In my experience, removing a few triggers is a great place to start but simply not enough to build resilience. Understanding what’s filling up YOUR bucket and working on “emptying it”, is the key way to healing your brain health and being less susceptible to triggers.

What are the 5 Unexpected Causes of Headaches? Find out here at Part 2 of this article.