In our day to day lives, there are certain things that come up on a regular basis: staff meetings, lunch excursions, exercise classes. And for some of us, you can throw headaches into the mix, too. At least for me, a headache related to tension, teeth grinding, or most likely stress makes itself a nuisance at least one time a week.
You may not think it’s a problem because the one occurrence seems overshadowed by everything else that comes up in a week. But when you look at the collective time that a headache steals from you after a month, it becomes pretty clear that they are probably more inconvenient than we allow ourselves to admit. I’m sure I’m not the only one who forces myself to power through one at work, even if I’m experiencing serious discomfort. But lately, I’ve started to wonder if chronic pain can be our body repackaging our stress by simply changing symptoms. Instead of processing the pain that occurs, we mask it, and don’t address its source, so it inevitably crops up in another ailment.
Given my hunch, it seemed only reasonable to reach out to Dr. Julie Von, holistic doctor and all-round Girl Boss, to see if there was any credence to my thoughts. Turns out, my hunch was correct. Dr. Von explains, “ The problem of continuous treatment of a system, is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t address the cause of the symptom.” However, this doesn’t mean that our symptoms are useless. In fact, just the opposite -- they give us opportunities to listen to our bodies for own self-care. In other words, “The beauty of a symptom is that it can lead you into an opportunity to rebalance. There are pathways and information out there that can allow you to explore the symptom,” says Dr. Von.
And there are pathways to find out why you are having headaches, for example. Dr. Von espouses the belief that everyone’s treatment should based on their own unique endocrine system -- basically, personalized health care. This all starts with your primary care professional, to balance your hormones holistically -- examine when your headaches are happening, what you’re eating, your cycle, and and the changes in your symptoms. Awareness in the change of symptoms throughout a month will help narrow how to remedy your ailment.
Other things you should be doing? Dr. Von explained that many women are subclinically anemic -- meaning, we don’t have enough iron or Vitamin B in our system. According to Dr. Von, at a minimum all women should take strides to take care of their blood. Think about it. We use a ton of blood for our muscles and brain. Throw inadequate nutrition into the mix, by choice or not, and we are draining ourselves of energy. This, Dr. Von explained, creates the perfect storm because any chronic deficiency will eventually manifest itself as a health problem.
So waht are some things you could do that might have a more immediate effect on your headaches. Acupuncture. Trust me, that was not music to my ears because I am afraid of needles, but this ancient medicine was incredibly effective for me. The practice effectively acts to recalibrate your nervous system, so if you feel like your headaches are a function of your body shorting out, this could be helpful. As Dr. Von so aptly explains, “acupuncture can restore your body to factory settings.” Like an iPhone, you too can hit reset. Dr. Gladys Frankel, Geisel Medical School Faculty at Dartmouth also suggested that, "Acupuncture can help blocked energy flow on important meridians in the body. This can greatly help to ease pain -- often it's recommended as a non-medication alternative treatment for pain."
As far as other tips and tricks you can try, there are two that are particularly effective. The first is as follows: When you feel a tension headache approaching with gusto, (and let’s be honest, when are they not?) take a pencil or a pen and put it in between your teeth. Be careful not to bite down -- instead hold it in place just with your mouth for at least two minutes. This will keep you from subconsciously clenching your jaw and teeth, which leads to neck pain and tension headaches. But placing a pencil or pen in between your teeth, your muscles are forced to relax, thus circumventing your headache before you are even close to becoming crippled with pain.
Another quick trick that is surprisingly effective only takes about 15 seconds. With good posture, sit up in a chair with your chin tilted slightly down. Then tuck your chin into your chest and lower your head down. This will give you a nice stretch at the base of your skull. Then, add some pressure using your hand at the top of your head to provide a deeper stretch. This small exercise is optimal when it comes to your suboccipital muscles, which when contracted cause headaches. The more you know.
Utilize the tools in your toolbox that you have when it comes to treating chronic pain. If you notice something is wrong, there is probably a reason why you are feeling that pain so regularly. Track your symptoms. Take note of what triggers you. Practice self-care. Don’t ignore your headaches, or simply tolerate pain because you don’t have time to address it. In the words of Dr. Von, if all women practiced exquisite self-care there would truly be a revolution on the planet.