When a headache strikes, you probably don’t care what kind you have; you just want it to go away—fast. But before you head for your medicine cabinet, try doing a little detective work first. Why? Because aspirin or anti-inflammatory drugs may not be the best cure. Naturopathic physicians and other holistic docs know this, says Jamey Wallace, ND, director of Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle, so they treat the various types of headaches differently. “Knowing what type of headache you have also clues you in to ways of preventing the pain all together,” he says. So before another headache hits, take this quiz—it will help you find relief once and for all.
Quiz: What Type of Headache Do You Have?
Circle the answer that most closely describes your symptoms.
1. WHAT DOES YOUR HEADACHE PAIN FEEL LIKE?
a. My head throbs, and the pain pounds in time with my pulse.
b. A constant aching pain. It feels like there’s a vice around my head.
c. A tender and dull pain.
d. Sharp and knifelike. My head feels like it’s burning.
2. WHERE IS YOUR PAIN LOCATED?
a. Usually on one side or at the back of my head.
b. On both sides of my head, and I feel a tightness in my neck.
c. In my forehead or face, especially behind my cheekbones or eyebrows.
d. On one side of my head, usually behind one eye.
3. HOW LONG DOES YOUR PAIN USUALLY LAST?
a. At least three hours, but it can also last for days without stopping.
b. From one hour to one day.
c. It can go on the whole day, but gets worse as the day goes on.
d. From about 15 minutes to three hours, but the pain will come back a couple times during the day.
4. WHAT OTHER SYMPTOMS OCCUR BEFORE OR DURING YOUR HEADACHES?
a. It seems to affect many of my senses—I get nauseous, see zigzag lines or flashes of light, I become sensitive to light, and I even slur my speech sometimes.
b. My back and shoulders get really uncomfortable.
c. Besides the pressure in my face, I often have a stuffy nose or postnasal drip.
d. I’ll start sweating, and my eyelids start to droop.
5. HOW QUICKLY DO YOUR HEADACHES COME ON?
a. I notice changes in my entire body about 30 minutes before my headache.
b. The pain comes on gradually.
c. I’ll feel a twinge of pain in the morning, and it worsens as the day goes on.
d. Suddenly. In fact, they often wake me from my sleep.
6. DO YOU NOTICE ANY COMMON TRIGGERS THAT SET OFF YOUR PAIN?
a. Eating certain foods (especially ones I crave), or smelling smoke.
b. Staring at a computer for a long time, or super-stressful days.
c. Swimming or traveling to high altitudes.
d. Not really, though sometimes I get headaches after drinking alcohol and eating certain foods.
7. IS THERE A PATTERN OR FREQUENCY TO YOUR HEADACHES THAT YOU CAN PINPOINT?
a. I get them one to three times a month, often duringor right before my period.
b. No regular pattern, though I get them more during the week than on weekends.
c. I get more headaches during or just after I’ve had a cold.
d. I won’t have any headaches for 10 months or so, and then I get them constantly for a few weeks. They seem to happen more as the seasons change, when nights get longer or shorter.
IF YOU ANSWERED MOSTLY As…
You have a migraine headache. The telltale throbbing that defines a migraine occurs when too much blood flows into the head and too little flows out. “It’s like overinflating a basketball,” explains Les Daroff, PhD, director of mind-body medicine at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia. To counteract this sensation, Daroff suggests a patient imagine a time when her hands felt very cold, like when she threw a snowball or scraped ice off her car. Just thinking about cold hands will contract the blood vessels leading to the head, which will slow the blood flow. In a similar way, a cold compress on your head, face, or throat will lessen the pain. If that doesn’t help, a jolt of caffeine (black coffee, no milk or sugar) will rapidly constrict the blood vessels and ease some of the throbbing. As a preventative measure, nothing beats the herb feverfew. This relative of the sunflower stops the inflammation that causes blood vessels in the head to expand. Take a standardized dose of 250 to 300 mg twice daily on an empty stomach, but be patient; you have to take it for four to six weeks to see results.
IF YOU ANSWERED MOSTLY Bs…
You have a tension headache. A combination of stress and muscle fatigue causes these all-too-common headaches, and any exercise or herb that relaxes your neck muscles will relieve your head pain. One acupressure technique that works: Take the middle finger and thumb of one hand, and grasp the webbing between your
thumb and forefinger on the opposite hand, where you’ll probably feel a tender or sore point. Squeeze that point firmly for 40 seconds to one
minute and then let go. “This releases the frontalis muscle, which runs across the forehead and down the neck, and helps relieve your tension pain,” says Daroff. Teas made with relaxing herbs like wood betony, chamomile, or valerian help as well; pour one cup of hot water over one teaspoon of herbs, and steep for 20 minutes. To prevent these “stress headaches,” stretch regularly. For a quick release, stand in a doorway with the door open, place elbows and hands on either side so your forearms are flat against the jamb, and lean your body forward. This opens the chest and releases tightness in your shoulders and neck, where tension headaches originate.
IF YOU ANSWERED MOSTLY CS…
You have a sinus headache. Unlike other headaches that happen because of blood-vessel constriction or dilation, these occur when the tiny sinus cavities through the bridge of your nose and around your eyes become inflamed. But don’t assume you have an infection and turn to antibiotics right away. First, find out what’s causing the inflammation. Dust mites, pollen, and even food sensitivities (especially to dairy) can launch the body into attack mode to fend them off, so minimize possible triggers and see if your headaches go away. While you have sinus pain, use a neti pot or other nasal irrigation tool three times a day. This reduces swelling and keeps the nasal tissue moist. Once you relieve the pressure, continue to use a neti pot once a week, especially during seasonal allergy season.
IF YOU ANSWERED MOSTLY DS…
You have a cluster headache. Nicknamed the “suicide headache” by its sufferers, this debilitating, stabbing pain can last for days or even weeks—but then be MIA for months. One theory suggests cluster headaches originate as an imbalance in the hypothalamus, the gland that controls the body’s rhythms, which would explain why they usually occur when the days start getting shorter or longer. Because flare-ups are common during the dry fall season, drink plenty of fluids and reduce how much caffeine and alcohol you drink. Once a cluster headache strikes, it’s easier to treat it earlier in the cycle, says Michelle Qaqundah, ND, director of naturopathic medicine at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Intravenous magnesium can help reduce pain by relaxing the smooth muscles that constrict during a headache. “It’s vital to have a plan in place so you can get help as soon as a cluster strikes,” says Qaqundah.