The goal of headache medications is not to identify and eliminate their cause, but simply to relieve pain symptoms. Very interestingly, clinical studies have suggested that in approximately 70 percent of patients with chronic daily headaches, the headaches are actually caused by the drugs being taken to treat the headaches. In fact, when these people stopped taking the medications, their headaches went away.
In an older study featured in a 1993 issue of Neurology, 52 percent of 200 patients suffering from analgesic rebound headaches (which occur when pain medicine wears off) saw improvement after discontinuing their medications. Most of the patients in the study were taking aspirin or acetaminophen—anywhere from 28 to 52 tablets per week; however, 40 percent of the patients were taking an average of 28 codeine tablets per week. In addition to fewer and less severe headaches, study participants also experienced improvements in general well-being and sleep, had more energy and were less irritable and depressed.
Although some headaches may be associated with a serious medical condition, most are not cause for alarm. Headaches can be brought on by a variety of factors, but the overwhelming majority are either tension or migraine headaches. A quick way to differentiate between the two is to pay attention to the nature of the pain. A tension headache is usually a steady, constant, dull pain that starts at the back of the head or in the forehead and spreads over the entire head, giving a sensation of pressure of a vice being applied to the skull. In contrast, migraine headaches are vascular headaches characterized by a throbbing or pounding sharp pain.
Relief of symptoms should be a major goal of any treatment, but it should not come at the price of doing more harm than good. It’s important to think of symptoms as whistle-blowers that alert us to deeper issues. When the whistle-blower is silenced, it does not necessarily mean that the deeper issue has been fixed. Symptoms provide us with valuable information so we can make changes that will lead to better health.
Tension headaches can be relieved using stress reduction techniques or by seeing a chiropractor or physical therapist. In the case of migraine headaches, many studies have shown that food allergy can be a major culprit. In addition to identifying food allergies, there are also several vitamins and herbs that can help naturally treat migraines, including riboflavin, magnesium and butterbur (Petasites hybridus).
Note: This information was adapted with permission from What the Drug Companies Won’t Tell You and Your Doctor Doesn’t Know, by Michael T. Murray, ND (Atria Books 2009).