By Dana Ullman MPH, CCH
(Excerpted from Everybody’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicine, Stephen Cummings, MD, & Dana Ullman, MPH Tarcher/Putnam, 2004)
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Most of us have one or two “weak links” — parts of the body that take the brunt of physical or psychological stress. Some people get colds, some digestive upsets, and a great number are prone to headaches.
Headaches can be a serious health problem. Some people suffer from headaches that are severe or frequent enough to be incapacitating. Certainly, there are times when a headache signals a serious condition. In the great majority of cases, however, the pain of a headache is best seen as a message that your stress level has risen too high. The headache serves as a warning that you need a change – perhaps to rest, deal with an emotional conflict, change your diet, or correct a problem in your personal environment at home or work.
Modern medicine classifies headaches according to the immediate cause of painful stimulation of nerve endings. The types of headaches include muscle-contraction headaches, vascular headaches, and headaches caused by inflammation or structural conditions.
Nearly everyone has had a muscle-contraction headache, more commonly but less precisely referred to as a ìtension headache.î Most people assume that the term ìtensionî refers to emotional stress, and in fact, many times this type of headache is brought on by stress on the job, being stuck in a traffic jam, or other such situations. But the pain of a muscle contraction headache arises from tightening of the muscles of the upper back, neck, and scalp, and this may result from any type of stress, whether physical or emotional. Extremes of heat or cold, hunger, loss of sleep, a tiring drive, and improper posture are all examples of physical stresses that can lead to muscle contraction headaches.
That the body responds to stress by increasing muscle tone makes senseóitís preparing for a ìfight or flightî response. Unfortunately, physical action isnít socially appropriate in many stressful situations, so the muscle tension just builds up. Once it reaches a certain threshold, you get a headache. The pain arises partly because the muscle is simply sore from being overworked, and partly because the tension constricts blood vessels and reduces blood flow to the tiring muscles. It is now thought that in many or most muscle contraction headaches, the physiological changes that account for vascular headaches also contribute to the pain (see the next section in this chapter). The pain of a muscle contraction headache is typically a dull, steady ache felt across the forehead, at the temples, or at the base of the head and neck. A sensation of tightness, as if a constricting band were wrapped around the head, may be felt. The scalp and neck are often tender to touch.
General Home Care
Muscle-contraction headaches are generally easy to treat at home: Simply take a break from the stress that lead to the headache, get some rest. and perhaps massage the sore neck muscles. If the headache doesnít respond to these simple measures in a short time, try a homeopathic medicine from the list in this chapter. By helping the body restore order and balance, the correct homeopathic medicine speeds relaxation of the muscle contraction and relief from the pain, without any of the side effects associated with standard painkillers.
Steps you can take to prevent recurrent muscle contraction headaches include:
Learn to recognize and avoid simple physical causes of muscle tension like poor posture, uncomfortable clothing, or unpleasant environmental conditions (an overly chilly room, irritating noise, and so on). Notice whether any of your habits are awkward or cause tension and straining, such as the way you sit at your desk, hold the telephone, or clench your jaw.
Recognize and deal with emotionally stressful situations in your life. We realize this is easier said than done, but headaches are very commonly associated with emotional stress.
Become familiar with the early signs and sensations of tension, both muscular and emotional. If you can sense tension before a bad headache comes on, you can do something to break the cycle before tension increases. Get out of the stressful situation for a few minutes, do some physical exercise to help release stored tension, meditate, pray, or do anything you find relaxing or joyful (laughter is great for releasing tension).
Learn to relax the muscles that tense up during a headache, so that you can relax them during periods of stress. We suggest you set aside ten minutes or so twice a day for relaxation exercises. Relax your whole body and your head and neck muscles in particular. Spend the last few moments of each period of relaxation imagining yourself in the situation that causes you the most stress–perhaps it’s driving in rush hour traffic–keeping that relaxed feeling. After a week or so, youíll start to remember the relaxation sessions whenever youíre in that tense situation, and before long, you’ll find that you can maintain greater tranquillity even then. Biofeedback can help you learn to control various physiological processes that lead to tension headaches, as can meditation.
Exercise and massage are both great for relieving tension and lifting your mood. The specialty bodywork practices–such as the Alexander technique, chiropractic, rolfing, or acupressureócan also be helpful in treating or preventing headaches.
Some people get headaches when they are hungry or when they eat foods that donít agree. Pay attention to the pattern of your headaches in relation to diet. We recommend regular meals with an emphasis on fresh vegetables, whole grains and, if desired, lean meats. Avoid sweets and caffeine. Specific foods often aggravate vascular headaches, and since many headaches may be of mixed type, it may be useful to avoid these foods.
If you have any visual difficulties, see an eye specialist. While eyestrain isnít a common cause of headache, sometimes it is to blame for recurrent headaches.
Consider a checkup for misalignment or injury of the temporomandibular joints (TMJ). These joints attach the jaw to the rest of the skull on either side, just in front of the ears. One quick test: Try placing a two to-three inch piece of Popsicle stick or tongue depressor between the teeth to separate the upper and lower jaws. If this relieves your headache, you may have a TMJ problem. Evaluation is best performed by an ear, nose, and throat specialist or a dentist.
For more information on self-treatment of headaches, we recommend Headache Help by Lawrence Robbins, MD, and Susan Lang (1995) and Migraine: What Works by Joseoph Kandel, MD, and David Sudderth, MD (1996). For more details on learning to deal with stress, see Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD (1990) and PNI: The New Mind/Body Healing Program by Elliott Dacher, MD (1993).
Migraines and Other Vascular Headaches
Many people use the word ìmigraineî to refer to any really bad headache, but migraine headache, as medically understood, denotes that pain resulting from a complex series of specific changes in the blood vessels of the head and brain. During a migraine, the blood vessels first become overly constricted and then widen abnormally. This sequence of constriction and widening affects the blood vessels on one side of the head more intensely, and often it is especially pronounced in a particular area of the brain.
The symptoms of migraine headaches are directly related to these changes in the blood vessels. During the initial phase of blood vessel narrowing, decreased blood flow to the brain leads to malfunction in the area of greatest constriction. So, before any pain is felt, the typical migraine begins with some sort of warning symptom, called an aura. The most common aura is disturbance of vision, which may take the form of bright or colored zigzag lines, areas of cloudy vision, flashing lights, and so on. Other people have auras with such symptoms as slurred speech, dizziness, weakness or numbness of one side of the body, and other signs of neurological impairment.
The migraine headache pain begins when the previously narrowed blood vessels then open too wide. Normal brain function is restored by the return of blood flow, but stretching of the vessel walls, along with inflammation caused by chemical changes in the blood, stimulates pain-sensitive nerve endings in the vessel walls. At first the pain is localized on one side of the head, but it often spreads to the other side as the headache progresses. The pain is intense and throbbing in character. Accompanying the headache may be symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, intolerance of light, dizziness, and sweating or chilliness.
This description of the migraine applies to the ìclassicî type, but other forms of migraine are not uncommon. Sometimes the headache begins without a prior aura. On the other hand, ìmigraine equivalentsî may occur; there may be the neurological disturbances (visual changes and so on) or vomiting typical of a migraine, though there is no headache.
The tendency to have migraines clearly runs in families and seems to be due, in part, to a genetic predisposition, They first occur before the person reaches the age of thirty, usually in the early-teen years. Migraines often start in childhood, particularly around the time of puberty. Even very young children can get migraines. Before the child is old enough to tell you about the headache, the first sign you may see in your two-to-four year old is recurrent vomiting. The child who gets headaches may well be saying something about a difficulty in her life that she finds hard to express openly. Do your best to identify stress your child faces, and work with her to find ways to resolve the conflict.
A migraine headache is most often triggered by psychological stress but, curiously, it is characteristic that the attack begins when the stress is relieved. High-pressure business people, for instance, may dread the ìrelaxingî weekends that bring on their headaches. Other stresses that frequently lead to migraines include going without food, sleeping too long, bright lights, and fluctuations in hormone levels (some women get migraines every month before the menstrual period or when they ovulate). Foods and drinks including nuts, chocolate, coffee, cheese, citrus, and alcohol may also trigger migraines, as do some drugs.
Another type of vascular headache is the ìcluster headache.î These are severe, one-sided headaches that occur in spells, most often during sleep. The pain is accompanied by redness and tearing of the eye, and the nostril drops on the painful side.
General Home Care
An untreated migraine lasts at least several hours, often a full day. Many migraine headaches are so severe, simple measures like rest or aspirin offer little or no help. Relaxation measures may bring some relief. Learning to warm the hands by increasing blood flow through biofeedback has been especially effective, probably because the circulatory system in general is affected. Suggesting to yourself that the hands are becoming warm and heavy is the best way for most people to achieve this without a biofeedback device. Dealing effectively with stress and avoiding the factors that you know lead to your headaches are critical for preventing migraines. Constitutional homeopathic treatment from a professional practitioner is the most helpful preventive approach for those whose headaches donít respond to simple home care measures or to self-care homeopathy.
Many different conventional medicines are used to treat and prevent migraines; some are strong drugs with many potentially serious side effects. We recommend that you opt for conventional treatment only if your headaches persist after youíve tried self-care methods and professional homeopathic treatment.
Less common than muscle-contraction and migraine headaches are the various types of headaches caused by infection, inflammation, and structural changes in the face and head. Many of these are serious conditions requiring medical treatment.
For information about acute sinus headaches, see the section on sinus conditions in Chapter 4 on colds and coughs.
Homeopathic Medicines for Headaches of All Types
Use homeopathic medicines at home when you or your children have mild to moderate headaches.
Itís often difficult to choose the right medicine for a headache. So many headaches are made better or worse by the same factors, and many remedies cover these common modalities. Often the personís general symptoms are your best guide in choosing the medicine. Use only the strongest, most definite headache symptoms in your case analysis, and compare them to the symptoms we list here. If you still have trouble picking the right medicine, we recommend you choose between the first three we cover, Belladonna, Nux, and Bryonia. One of these three medicines will help the majority who suffer from acute headaches that have few specific symptoms.
Onset of symptoms:
Did anything seem to trigger the headache? For example, exposure to cold or wet weather or to a draft, eating too much or eating something in particular, alcohol or drugs, emotions, overwork, or lack of sleep?
Character of the pain:
Where in the head is the pain centered, and where does it radiate? What is the character of the pain (throbbing, aching, burning, etc.)?
Has the headache affected the patientís appearance? Is the face pale or flushed red? Are the pupils dilated? How is vision affected? Have digestive symptoms such as nausea or vomiting developed? Does the headache seem related to the menstrual cycle, occurring prior to, during, or after the periods?
What time of day is the headache worst? What makes the pain better or worse? How is it affected by hot or cold applications, heat and cold in general, pressure, light, and noise? How does motion, and position (lying, sitting, or standing) affect the pain? Does motion of the eyes affect the pain?
Remedy Summary for Headaches
If you find it hard to select a medicine from those listed here, choose among Belladonna, Nux, and Bryonia.
Give the medicine: Up to every two hours; once improvement begins, repeat only when symptoms are worse again or improvement has ceased for an hour or so.
When to try another medicine: If the symptoms are no better after two or three doses of the first medicine you try.
- Intense headaches with violent throbbing pains
- Pain aggravated by light, noise, touch, strong or unusual smells, motion, or jarring
- Pain begins and passes suddenly
- Confirmatory symptoms
- Pain most typically located in the forehead, from which it may extend to the back of the head
- Face flushed or feels hot, sometimes with cold hands and feet
- Dilated pupils
- Relieved by sitting or firm pressure
- Pain worse from climbing steps or descending a slope or stairway and in the afternoon
- Headache aggravated by motion, even very slight motion of the head or eyes
- Steady aching or sense of heaviness with little throbbing
- Confirmatory symptoms
- Pain worsened by slight touch, relieved by firm pressure
- Pain worst in the morning, especially after first moving in bed or just after getting out of bed
- Headache centered over left eye
- Headache accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or constipation
- Patient irritable, wants to be left alone
- Headaches beginning after overeating; from alcohol, coffee or other drugs; from loss of sleep; or from excessive mental work
- Headache accompanied by general sick feeling and by digestive upsets including vomiting, gas, or sour or bitter taste Confirmatory symptoms
- Pain worst on first waking in the morning, improving after getting up
- Pain aggravated by sounds such as sound of footsteps
- Pain relieved by wrapping the head up or being in a warm room
- Headache coming on after meals or after warm, rich, or fatty foods or ice cream -or-
- Headaches in connection with menstrual period (before, during, or at end of the period) Confirmatory symptoms
- Patient wants company and consolation
- Relief with gentle motion, especially walking slowly in open air
- Pain in forehead or on one side; or changes location frequently
- Pain relieved by pressure, worsened by blowing the nose
- Pain begins at the back of the head, extending upward or to the forehead -or-
- Headaches preceded by dimness of vision or other visual disturbances Confirmatory symptoms
- Sensation of a band or hood bound tightly around the head
- Pain on the right side of the head
- Relieved by napping or urinating
- Aggravated by light, noise, motion, or jarring
- Patient feels dull, tired, heavy, and apathetic; wants to be left alone but not markedly irritable
- Pain in one side of the forehead, particularly the right
- Migraine headaches that come on at regular intervals Confirmatory symptoms
- Headache preceded or accompanied by dimness of vision or other visual changes
- Nausea and vomiting following the headache; headache worse after vomiting
- Pain improved by walking in the open air
- Pain begins in the back of the head, extending to right side of the head or right eye
- Headaches recur periodically Confirmatory symptoms
- Nausea and vomiting; vomiting brings relief
- Pain sharp, splitting, knifelike, or throbbing
- Pain worse from motion, better from sleep and firm pressure
- Stitching, burning, or pulsating pains, usually on the frontal part of the head, often on the left
- Stiff neck and shoulders accompany the headache, making motion painful Confirmatory symptoms
- Pain better by lying with the head propped up; worse from stooping, motion, noise, and cold stormy weather
- Temporary relief from washing with cold water but the pain is worse later
- Pain in and around the eyes or extending into the eye sockets
Belladonna is indicated for people whose headaches are intense with violent throbbing pains. The headache causes an extreme sensitivity, and the least bit of light, noise, touch, strong or unusual smell, motion, or jarring brings on a new wave of throbbing and pain. The pain often begins suddenly, and it may go away suddenly as well. It may spread throughout the entire head, or it may be localized anywhere, but it is most typically focused in the forehead; from the forehead it may extend to the back of the head. Often the face is flushed or feels hot, and sometimes the hands and feet are cold. Belladonna is thus the most commonly given medicine for headaches associated with high fever. The pupils may be noticeably dilated during a Belladonna headache. Firm pressure applied to the head helps (other remedies also have this modality).
Belladonna is unique, in that it suits headaches that are definitely relieved by sitting. Belladonna is one of a number of medicines that cover headaches made worse by climbing steps, but it alone fits those also aggravated by traveling down a slope or stairway. Afternoon is most characteristically the time of worst pain.
Bryonia is best used when the most prominent characteristic of the headache is aggravation with motion. Both Belladonna and Bryonia cover this marked sensitivity to motion, and many other remedies also fit headaches made worse by motion. For the Bryonia patient, however, this is the outstanding characteristic. Even slight motion of the head or eyes worsens the pain. The pain is made worse by slight touch but made better by firm pressure. It is generally worst in the morning, and though it may be felt immediately upon waking, it is just as likely to come on only after the person first moves in bed or after she gets out of bed. There is little throbbing with Bryonia headaches, unlike those of Belladonna, and the pain is described as a steady ache, sometimes with a sense of fullness or heaviness. As with Belladonna, the headache is likely to be located in the forehead, extending from there to the back of the head, but it is commonly centered over the left eye, a symptom not shared with Belladonna. Nausea, vomiting, and especially constipation may occur in connection with Bryonia headaches. The Bryonia patient is irritable and irascible and wants to be left alone.
Nux vomica is also a good medicine for irritable people with headaches. The apparent cause of the headache is most often the best indication for Nux, since this medicine frequently suits the symptoms of headaches brought on by overeating, the use of alcohol, coffee or other drugs, or staying up too late and missing sleep. The person with a typical morning hangover headache, who often has indulged in all of these pursuits, frequently is gratefully relieved with a dose or two of Nux. Such headaches are generally accompanied by an overall sick feeling and by digestive upsets. The sufferer may have a sour or bitter taste in the mouth in the morning, queasiness, nausea or vomiting (dry heaves and gas are especially typical Nux symptoms). The Nux headache may also be brought on by concentrated or prolonged mental work or by cold air or cold wind. In contrast to Bryonia headaches, those of Nux are worse in the morning, particularly upon first waking, and tend to get somewhat better after the person is up and about. As with most headaches, motion may aggravate the symptoms, but shaking the head is particularly painful (as in Belladonna). Lying on the painful side often makes the pain worse, and the sound of footsteps is particularly irritating to the Nux headache patient. Wrapping the head up or being in a warm room may relieve the pain.
Pulsatilla headaches have also been associated with digestive upsets. They often come on after meals and particularly after eating warm, rich, or fatty foods or after eating ice cream. Nausea and vomiting frequently accompany a Pulsatilla headache. Pulsatilla is also a good medicine for headaches that occur in connection with menstrual periods (before, during, or especially when the period ends) or those that result from a frightening experience. The pain is most often felt in the forehead or on one side of the head and may change location frequently (as it does with Sanguinaria). Throbbing accompanies the headache. Although walking briskly may make the pain worse, generally there is relief from gentle motion, especially walking about slowly in the open air. Pressure relieves the pain and blowing the nose aggravates it. The Pulsatilla individual is emotionally mild and sensitive and may weep from the pains. Though a little irritable, the person is likely to want company and consolation.
Gelsemium headaches generally begin at the back of the head, often extending to the rest of the head or to the forehead. The person may feel as though a band or hood were bound tightly around their head. These symptoms are, of course, characteristic of muscle-contraction headaches. But Gelsemium is also one of the fairly few homeopathic medicines that clearly suit headaches preceded by dimness of vision or other visual disturbances, symptoms of migraines. Localized pain on the right side of the head is also covered by this remedy. The Gelsemium headache is not much affected by changes of temperature, but other environmental factors (light, noise, motion, jarring) aggravate it. Napping or, curiously, urinating relieves the pain. The person feels dull, tired, heavy, and apathetic. His eyes droop and he looks exhausted. He is not particularly irritable but wants to be left alone. The headaches of Iris are also preceded or accompanied by dimness of vision or other changes in eyesight. The pain is felt in one side of the forehead, particularly the right side. Nausea and vomiting ensue, and the headache is worse after the vomiting. The pain is made better by walking in the open air. Iris has helped many people with periodic migraine headaches, such as those that return every weekend. Even if visual disturbance does not accompany the headache, Iris may help if its other symptoms fit.
Sanguinaria headaches typically begin in the back of the head but extend to and soon settle over the right eye or in the right side of the head. Right-sided headaches are covered by other medicines (Iris and Gelsemium, for instance) but Sanguinaria is especially noted for this symptom. The pain is sharp, splitting, knifelike, and sometimes throbbing. Once again, nausea and vomiting occur at the height of the pain, but unlike Iris headaches, those of Sanguinaria are relieved after vomiting. Motion aggravates the pain, whereas sleep and firm pressure relieve it. Like Iris, Sanguinaria suits headaches that recur in a consistent pattern, such as every seven days. Homeopathic reference texts do not mention Sanguinaria in connection with visual disturbances. However, if you have a classic, visual-aura migraine headache that also has the symptoms just mentioned, we certainly recommend that you use this medicine.
The headaches that need Spigelia have stitching, burning, and pulsating pains, usually on the frontal part of the head and often on the left side. Lying with the head propped up makes the pains better; stooping, motion, noise, and cold stormy weather make them worse. Washing with cold water can feel good, but the pain is usually worse after you finish. In general, the head pains are made worse by warmth and temporarily better by cold (for other pain symptoms of Spigelia the reverse is true). A stiff neck and shoulders accompany the headache and make motion very painful. The person may also experience severe pain in and around the eyes and extending deep into the sockets.
Beyond Home Care
Get Medical Care Immediately:
- for any very severe headache, particularly if it is unusual for you;
- for headache accompanied by stiff neck or high fever;
- for any headache that occurs after a head injury.Get Medical Care Today:
- the first time you have a headache preceded or accompanied by visual disturbances, weakness of one side or part of the body, speech disorders, or dizziness. If you have had these symptoms previously, but their pattern has changed significantly, call or see your practitioner;
- for a headache lasting more than three or four days, even if mild (a call to your doctor may suffice);
- if a headache begins while you’re taking medicine, including birth control pills.See Your Practitioner Soon:
- for headaches that recur frequently, even if mild;
- for headaches that are consistently worse in the morning or upon waking.