How to Prevent Headaches


Although headache pain is commonly viewed as both unpredictable and inexplicable, the fact is that most headache sufferers inadvertently cause their own suffering.  One of the nation's most prominent headache specialists explains how we unwittingly cause our headaches . . . and what we can do to prevent them.
Can headaches be caused by staring at a computer monitor?
Probably not.  Most headaches blamed on eyestrain are really migraines triggered by bright fluorescent lighting.  Remedy:  Switch to incandescent lamps.  Other causes of occupational headaches:  Cradling a phone against your shoulder, typing at a computer terminal, sitting for long periods of time and maintaining poor posture.  If you're spending a long stretch in a chair or automobile, make sure the seat is comfortable... and take a short break every 45 minutes.
What about alcohol?
Anyone who has ever awakened with a hangover knows all too well that alcohol can cause headaches.  But even moderate consumption of alcohol can cause trouble.  Obviously, the surest way to avoid alcohol-induced headaches is to abstain.  If you do drink, gin, vodka, white wine and other light colored beverages are less troublesome than dark drinks, including scotch, bourbon and especially red wine.
Does food play a role?
Most definitely.  Ten percent of chronic headaches are caused by certain "trigger" foods - particularly, aged cheeses ... paté... liver... yogurt... bacon, bologna and other cured meats... and citrus fruits.  The ubiquitous artificial sweetener aspartame seems to trigger pain in some people.  For others, the flavour enhancer MSG (monosodium glutamate) is to blame.  MSG is a common ingredient, not only in Chinese food, but also in canned soups, TV dinners, self-basting turkeys and meat tenderizers.
How can I tell if foods are causing my headaches?
Temporarily give up all potential trigger foods.  If your headaches are unchanged after 30 days on this "elimination" diet, the problem does not lie with your choice of foods.  But if your headaches become less intense or occur less often, food probably does play a role.  To pinpoint the culprit:  Each week, reintroduce large quantities of one suspect food.  If your headaches flare up, you've spotted a trigger.  If there is no change, keep reintroducing suspect foods one at a time for a week.  Continue until each food has been tested.
Is it true that staying up late or waking up early can cause headaches?
Absolutely.  In fact, any disturbance in your sleep-wake cycle can cause a problem.  To avoid the problem:  Stick to a schedule throughout the week -- even if it means getting up briefly and then going back to bed on lazy weekend mornings.
Will regular exercise help control my headaches?
Aerobic exercise for at least 20 minutes a day, five days a week, not only reduces incidence of headache, but also improves your emotional outlook and strengthens your muscles and cardiovascular system.
Why do many people who have used aspirin for years no longer seem to be able to find relief from headaches?
Long-term over-reliance on aspirin, acetaminophen and other nonprescription painkillers actually exacerbates chronic headaches by interfering with the brain's natural headache-fighting ability.  Fortunately, patients who give up painkillers soon experience a marked improvement in their condition -- after undergoing a mildly unpleasant 2-3 week withdrawal period.  Of course, it's better never to grow dependent on these drugs.  If you're using nonprescription painkillers more than four times a week, ask your doctor to help you find alternative ways to control your pain.
Do any other medications cause headaches?
Though most women find that oral contraceptives reduce mentrual period discomfort, some find they have more pain after going on the Pill.  What to do:  Any woman troubled by headaches while on the Pill should discuss with her doctor switching to a low-estrogen formulation. . . or going off the Pill for a while.
What can be done about my sinus headaches?
Most people who blame headache pain on sinus congestion are actually suffering from a mix of migraines and tension-type headaches, possibly coupled with overuse of nonprescription analgesics.  If congestion really is the culprit, reducing your intake of dairy products should prove helpful.  In cases of extreme sinus congestion, you might benefit from a course of oral antibiotics or surgical drainage of your sinuses.
What about psychological causes of headache?
Although psychological factors are rarely the ultimate cause of chronic headaches, there's no doubt that some headaches are made worse by emotional factors, such as job stress, family tension, unexpressed anger -- even a simple desire for attention from other family members.  Sadly, doctors are so attuned to physiological factors that they rarely zero in on psychology.

Remedy:  If stress or some other emotional factor seems to be causing your headaches, ask your doctor to refer you to a qualified behavioral specialist.  This type of specialist will likely prescribe relaxation exercises or bio-feedback.

Note:  In most cases of chronic headache, psychotherapy is of little value.

Source:  Alan M. Rapoport,  MD, author of Headache Relief from Fireside Books
-- Excerpt from Bottom Line Power Book: Secrets, Strategies
The cause of chronic headaches can often be tracked down by keeping a headache journal.  Write down the time of the day of each headache and what you are doing when the pain strikes.  Include notes on what you ate and drank most recently... and any changes in your daily routine.  The journal almost always makes a pattern clear -- pointing to the cause of the headaches, or several related causes.
Commonly overlooked headache causes:  Sex, flying, skipping meals, spicy foods, too much sleep.
Source:  Robert Ford, MD, director of Ford Headache Clinic
-- Excerpt from Doctor's Little Black Bag of Remedies & Cures from Boardroom books.