Headaches, Migraines and Root Cause Medicine
Is there a Cure for Headaches?
If you are suffering from headaches or migraines and come to visit us and, our first step is to perform an extensive history and in-depth physical exam. During the history and exam, you will learn how Root Cause Medicine works. The truth is your body is creating your head pain for a reason. That sounds obvious, but what is less obvious is the reason why.
How we identify the root cause of your headache or migraine pain and get rid of it, typically for good, is what makes Root Cause Medicine so very different from conventional drug-focused medicine.
Am I saying we have a cure for headaches? Yes and no. From the viewpoint of conventional medicine which says take “X” and your condition will go away, that is not our approach. However, from the viewpoint of identifying a root cause creating your headaches or migraines that when you address that cause or causes, you discontinue suffering, then yes, we have excellent success in that regard.
What is different about Root Cause Medicine is that we do not mask you pain with drugs but rather attack it at its root. This approach gives us an 85% success rate of eradicating your pain.
The most common response we hear from patients is that the root cause approach makes sense and they wonder why more doctors do not offer it. Once we explain this method to you, you will be excited to begin a program.
Personal note: I suffered from migraine headaches 2 to 3 times per month from puberty until my mid to late twenties. My mother was a migraine sufferer her entire life; my doctor told me they were genetic, and I would just have to live with them.
When I was not suffering with migraines, I had what I called my “regular headache”. This was a non-migraine, tension headache. I rarely if ever did not have a headache.
I still remember my last migraine; it was awful. But it was my last and I have not had another one for several decades. I also cured my mother’s migraines despite her life-long suffering. Her last migraine was in her 60s and she lived to 93.
I also clearly remember the day I thought “what is different?” and realized I had not had my “regular headache” for several days.
I delight in all the wonderful health changes we make in our patient’s health here at Root Cause, but I must admit I have a special place for migraine sufferers. It is a scary and intense pain and I love our high success rate in removing migraines and headaches in general from our patient’s list of complaints.
Tension Headaches, Migraines and Cluster Headaches
Patients commonly describe their headaches in this way: “I just have normal headaches.” It is interesting that we would ever think pain in our head is normal, but we do. Why? Because we are told it is.
In our country “normal” has become a synonym for “common”. In other words, since headaches, particularly tension headaches, are common, we often speak of them as normal and therefore are not concerned about having them.
If taking a drug “handles” the pain, albeit temporarily, individuals frequently do not think twice about it. They feel they have a “solution”. When I point out that truly solving the root cause of headaches would mean they would not return; patients begin to see the difference between taking a drug and actually solving the problem.
Does that make sense? If you have been suffering for a while you may feel apathetic about your ability to truly get help, but I assure you it is very possible, and without the use of dangerous drugs.
There is a two-fold danger associated with taking medications for headaches:
- Not only does the drug work temporarily, allowing the headache to return, but the actual root cause underlying your headache frequently is affecting other aspects of your health. E.g. the root cause of my headaches, as an example, also affected my digestion and hormonal balance.
- The repeated use of drugs has side effects, creating health risks. Specifically, the medications commonly used are known to cause your headache to increase in frequency (how does that make sense to anyone!). We discuss this is greater detail below.
Headache disorders are common; they are the most common disorders of the nervous system. Recurrent sufferers can experience disability, in fact headaches rank in the top 10 causes of disability worldwide. Reduced quality of life and financial burden also result due to the condition.
The World Health Organization states: “the majority of headache sufferers are not diagnosed appropriately by their health-care provider.” I could not agree more. As a clinician who sees what the proper treatment can do to completely resolve headaches, it is terribly unfortunate to realize so many continue to suffer needlessly while being told temporary relief is the best they can expect.
The primary headache disorders are tension headache, migraine, and cluster headache. While headaches can be caused by, or occur secondarily from, a variety of conditions, the most common secondary cause of headaches is medication overuse, according to the World Health Organization. Is that surprising? I will have to admit, it was to me.
Despite a long history of treating patients, I found this statistic surprising and at the same time, deeply troubling. When you consider that for the most part drugs are all that’s offered to the typical sufferer, to then learn they end up being the most common cause of worsening the condition they are supposed to treat, we obviously have a large problem on our hands.
Tension Headaches are the most common type of headache
Sometimes called stress headaches, tension headaches vary widely in their intensity, frequency, and duration. They can be periodic or chronic. The latter is defined as a headache suffered more than 15 days out of the month. The pain level is typically mild to moderate, can feel like a tight band around one’s head or a feeling of pressure, although there are many variations. Depending on its severity the headache can interfere with the ability to perform one’s routine activities and tend to last from half an hour up to several days.
Thirty to 80% of American adults suffer from occasional tension headaches. Chronic daily tension headaches are suffered by 3% of the population with women suffering twice as often as men.
Causes of Tension Headaches per Conventional Medicine
According to the Cleveland Clinic there is no single cause for tension headaches. They are not genetic. Muscle tension can contribute, as can stress from family or work commitments. Additional causes are listed as insomnia, fatigue, depression, and anxiety.
Migraine is the 3rd most prevalent illness in the world, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. A quarter of American households include an individual suffering from migraine.
It is estimated 12% of our population suffers, including children. The incidence of migraine is most common in the age group of 25 to 55.
Women suffer 3 times more often than men, with the shift towards women occurring after puberty. Prior to puberty, girls and boys suffer equally. Shifts and fluctuations of the hormone estrogen are associated with the increased prevalence seen in women.
Almost 10% of American children suffer from migraine, causing them to miss school twice as often as those who do not suffer. The genetic link is strong; a full 90% of migraine sufferers have a family member who suffers. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, having a genetic link does not mean one MUST suffer.
The average incidence is estimated at once or twice per month, but millions suffer migraine 15 days of the month.
Debilitating, more than 90% of those suffering are unable to work or function normally when they have a migraine. Duration of migraines is anywhere from 4 hours to as long as 3 days. Sadly over 20% of chronic sufferers are disabled.
It is cited that depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances are common for those who suffer chronically. Due to the association, migraine sufferers are frequently prescribed psychiatric medications.
Anyone who has suffered from migraines has likely wondered if something serious is causing their pain. Feeling the need to rule out a brain tumor or other dreaded disease is a normal reaction.
There are red flags that make getting a brain MRI a good idea. These include:
- numbness in the arms or legs,
- nausea or vomiting,
- vision problems,
- difficulty speaking or finding the correct words
Do keep in mind nausea, vomiting and vision issues are common with migraine as well, and do not necessarily mean anything more serious, but if numbness and speech problems occur, it is smart to investigate further.
When the stress and worry of needing to rule out something like a brain tumor begins to take its toll, I definitely encourage my patients to get an MRI to decrease their concern. Such continued stress will be of no help during their healing process.
Keep in mind the incidence of brain tumors increases with age, occurring most frequently between the ages of 65 and 70. Often the signs associated with brain tumors in the elderly are problems of memory and speech. Therefore, it can be relieving to know the age of prime incidence of migraine and brain tumors do not overlap typically.
If you have ever experienced the pain of migraine you will not be surprised to learn that every 10 seconds someone goes to the emergency room complaining of head pain. Over one million of those visits are for acute migraine attacks. Having suffered personally, I would not wish the pain of a migraine on anyone.
Migraines are typically severe in their pain level, which is described as throbbing, most often affecting just one side of the head (although 1/3 of the time both sides are affected). Migraine is made worse by routine activity, is associated with light sensitivity about 25% of the time, as well as sound sensitivity, and often accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
When it comes to migraine, almost 18% of women suffer while men are less affected at about 6%.
Prevalence varies but was highest in the 35 to 45 year age range for both men and women, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The cause of migraines is considered unknown beyond a genetic association and fluctuations of estrogen in women. I well remember, after suffering my first few migraines, what my doctor said. “Your mother has migraines – it’s genetic.” This was pretty depressing to hear at age 16 when I had watched my mother suffering for as long as I could remember. She would go to bed and just moan in pain and I was helpless to know what to do for her. Other than codeine, my doctor had literally nothing to offer me. I recall feeling quite hopeless about it.
Cluster headaches are the least common of the headaches, affect approximately 1 individual in 1,000. They are characterized by pain in and around one eye. The incidence of cluster headaches is more common in men than women, at a ratio of approximately 4 to 1, typically beginning between the ages of 20 and 40.
Cluster headaches can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 4 hours and can recur several times per day. They are termed “cluster headaches” because the attacks tend to come in a group followed by a break in time before beginning again.
There is no known definitive cause of cluster headaches. There are some theories, but nothing definitive beyond appreciating that a nerve in the face creates the pain.
Treatment for Headaches utilized by Traditional Medicine
The most common treatment recommended for headaches is medication. It is by far the go-to “solution”.
Other protocols mentioned include stress management, evaluating the neck for evidence of pinched nerves, and neck exercises to reduce tension in tight muscles. I concur with these protocols and we utilize them in Root Cause Medicine as well.
When it comes to migraines associated with the menstrual cycle, women are often prescribed synthetic hormones such as the birth control pill to modulate hormone fluctuations. I very much disagree with this approach, since a natural bio-identical hormonal treatment works much better without suppressing a woman’s natural hormonal balance.
Interestingly, the number one factor spurring progression of headache incidence from occasional to frequent is medication, especially narcotics, opioids, and barbiturate drugs. But over the counter medications create risk as well.
The problem is so pervasive it has a name: MOH – Medication Overuse Headache.
An example of narcotic/opioids is codeine, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone. Common barbiturates are Esgic, Phrenilin, Fiorinal and butalbital. If a patient is using medications to stop a headache once it has begun (called abortive therapy), they are encouraged to stop, as this practice is considered a known risk of increasing headache frequency.
Just 5 days per month of opioid or barbiturate use is noted to increase the number of headaches suffered. The “solution” suggested by traditional medicine is avoiding such medications as opioids while trying to discover other medications that “work”.
What alternative drugs are suggested?
Short-acting over the counter medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, Excedrin and ibuprofen are considered safer alternatives to opioids, narcotics, and barbiturates. But the risk of increasing headache frequency is present with these medications as well. If taken every other day, or 15 days out of the month, these non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) too, are known to increase headache frequency.
Some studies place caffeine in the category of increasing headaches, even a single cup for those at risk.
It is interesting that the very substances known to abort a headache actually results in increased frequency. It is a bit insidious that the chemical which “appears” to work at the time, actually causes you to come back for more with greater frequency.
What is most interesting is the treatments we find actually “do” work and “do” get to the root cause of headaches, are not mentioned by the traditional medicine. In the case of headaches, root cause medicine couldn’t be more different than traditional medicine; their approach is predominated by drug treatment designed to reduce symptoms, while root cause medicine offers a natural approach that finds resolution in the vast majority of patients.
Are we saying tension, migraine and cluster headaches can be resolved? Yes, that is exactly what we experience with our patients. A truly drug-free resolution – It is exciting!
Conditions Linked to Headaches – the Root Cause Medicine Approach
What follows is a list of underlying root causes of headaches. You will not suffer from all of these, but you can look down the list and get an idea of what might be causing your headaches from a deeper level. The solution for all the conditions is a natural one and they do not take long to resolve. Even if you have suffered for decades, solving the problem of headaches is not difficult once the root cause is identified.
- Food sensitivities – foods you react negatively to can act like more of a toxin and create inflammation, leading to headaches. This is THE most common cause of headaches in our experience.
- Hormonal imbalance – very common in women who notice a link between their cycle and the onset of headaches. Rebalancing hormones is not difficult and does not necessitate the need for drugs.
- Nerve irritation, particularly of the neck or jaw – our Doctor of Chiropractic and Doctor of Physical Therapy evaluate for this problem. It is one of the top three underlying causes of headaches in our experience, and typically completely missed by conventional medicine.
- Dehydration - a common problem affecting 75% of Americans. Many people are unaware dehydration is a trigger for headaches so make sure you get your 8 glasses of filtered water every day. Dehydration puts you at risk of headaches and many other health problems, so if you are someone who rarely drinks water it would be worthwhile to develop a taste for it. If you need ideas how to do that, we can help.
- Drug use – opioid and over-the-counter medication. I am saying that drugs you have been prescribed can factually be causing more headaches for you. What is great about resolving headaches from its root cause is patients no longer require such dangerous medications.
- Malabsorption/maldigestion – the gut may seem a long way from your head, but it is known as the second brain for a reason. If your food is not turning into proper fuel your cells will not be properly fed. Your brain requires fuel just as much as the rest of your body. Therefore, digestive issues can create not only headaches but a multitude of other problems.
- Unstable blood sugar – as mentioned above, unstable blood sugar can be a digestive problem, but it can also occur secondarily to food sensitivities and hormonal imbalance. Instability of blood sugar is a direct cause of headaches in some people.
- Insomnia – you need adequate rest to recharge your “battery”. Insufficient rest can be a choice (simply not allowing enough time to sleep), but it can also be the result of imbalanced adrenal glands, thyroid, diet and food choices, infections and/or food sensitivities. Getting to the root cause of your sleep issues is something we specialize in.
- Fatigue – this can sometimes be a “chicken or the egg” question. Does the pain of the headache cause you fatigue or does the root cause of your fatigue create the headache? In my experience we see both.
- Constipation – when the bowels slow, toxic waste products are re-circulated throughout your body and a toxic headache can be a result.
- Infections, Toxicity – undiagnosed infections or toxins, typically in the gut, put a burden on your body’s immune system, digestive tract and can cause you headaches.
- Sinusitis and Allergies – if you have ever had a bad head cold and gotten congested, you have likely experienced how the pressure in your head can cause it to ache. This is true for allergies and sinus problems. Whether your allergies and sinus issues are seasonal or chronic, we can help.
- Inflammation – chronic inflammation is the root cause of all degenerative disease. Inflammation can become widespread affecting many parts of your body and headaches can result.
The above is a long list, I know. Do not let it overwhelm you. Whatever is at the root cause of your headaches can be identified and treated. Our in-depth history and exam helps to steer us in the correct direction for the cause of your headaches.
Why does your body give you pain?
Not to state the obvious, but the body gives you pain in order to let you know something is wrong. It is annoying to be sure, but you must admit it is effective. It is never a good idea to ignore pain for that reason. Your body has a problem and the best course is to discover what the problem is and solve it.
What is interesting about headaches, regardless of the type, is that the root cause does not typically reside in the head. That may sound odd, but it is not unusual in root cause medicine for the real culprit of the problem to be found at a point distant to the symptom. In fact, it epitomizes the key difference between Root Cause Medicine and conventional medicine. The latter solely focusing on the symptom, has no tools to identify the root cause, resulting in a course of treatment designed to only manage your symptoms while failing to remedy the problem.
Consider common root causes such as food sensitivities, hormonal imbalance, and the rest of the list mentioned above; they are distant from your head problem; yet they are frequently causative of headaches.
Your body does not operate in a vacuum. A problem capable of causing your headaches is most often linked to other imbalances in your body. The beauty of root cause medicine is when identify and correct the root of one problem, it often handles several other problems as well.
To again share my personal story: the major root cause of my headaches and migraines was also causing chronic fatigue, menstrual cramps, and back pain. That may sound incredible to some, but I assure you it is a common occurrence in our patients.
Almost one for one our patients are incredulous that they would or ever could be free of headaches, be they tension, migraine or cluster headaches. It is not surprising. They have heard from every traditional doctor they have ever gone to that the best they can do is “manage” their symptoms because there is no real cure. I disagree and my team has several decades of experience to prove it.
We regularly treat patients whose headaches are resolved completely. Is this a rare occurrence? No. In fact it is a regular practice for us.
I can be so bold as to say we have rarely met a migraine we could not conquer providing our patient was compliant with our recommendations.
It is not magic. There commonly are one to three key root causes, that once identified and treated, resolve headaches for good.
The 3 most common Root Causes of Headaches
Below are the most common root causes of headaches we find based on 25+ years of experience.
- Food sensitivities – by far the most common cause is a food or foods your body does not tolerate. You may think, but I do not see any rhyme or reason between what I eat and my headaches. That is very astute you and is part of the insidious nature of food sensitivities, as compared to food allergies.
Food allergies tend to have a short reaction time, typically an hour or so. Obviously, that makes connecting the dots between eating a food and suffering a headache easy to detect. Food sensitivities on the other hand tend to have a long delay in their response time. How long? Anywhere from several hours up to several days. It is this delay that can make the cause and effect relationship difficult to analyze and why food sensitivities can go undetected.
When the relationship is understood however, detection becomes easy and it is one of the key aspects in headache resolution. Patients are always so surprised when their headaches begin to abate with a simple dietary change. It just seems too darn simple.
- Nerve irritation – it only makes sense that pain can come from irritated nerves. We find that to be the case often. The neck, which sends branches of nerves into the head, is often the site of irritated nerves. The jaw or TMJ can also be irritated or out of proper alignment and can be the root of headache.
Normalizing alignment of the neck and jaw can make a huge difference for headache sufferers. It is for this reason we have our Physical Medicine Department composed of Doctors of Chiropractic and Doctors of Physical Therapy working together as a team.
- Hormonal imbalance – this primarily affects women, but recall women are affected three times more often with migraines than men. Not all women suffering with migraines notice an association with their menstrual cycle, but when they do there is frequently a progesterone deficiency.
It is an interesting cause and effect relationship and epitomizes the importance of getting to the root cause. Estrogen fluctuations tend to cause hormonal migraines, but the reason estrogen fluctuates as much as it does is due to inadequate progesterone levels.
The way I explain it in my lectures is that estrogen and progesterone both drop in anticipation of the beginning of menstruation. It is the drop of hormones that triggers the lining of the uterus to slough off, a period. How far estrogen drops is dictated by progesterone. You can liken it to the progesterone level as the “floor” and estrogen will fall as low as progesterone allows it to. If progesterone falls a normal amount, estrogen too will fall within normal limits. But if progesterone is deficient, it will fall precipitously allowing estrogen to do the same. It is the precipitous drop of estrogen that creates a migraine.
The solution? It is not difficult to normalize hormone levels, naturally, with no synthetic hormones or other drugs.
Are there more factors at play?
Yes, you can look at the long list above that mentions a variety of causes. But in the vast majority of cases, the three factors mentioned above are what we find most commonly to be at the root cause of headaches.
Solving your headache pain requires a root cause approach
Without identifying and addressing the underlying root cause you are never going to solve your headache problem completely. Drugs will not do this.
We are very honest and straightforward with our patients. We are not going to tell you that swallowing a pain pill or even a vitamin each day is going to solve your headache problem. We will not tell you that because it just is not true.
We want you to have an ability to meet with us and truly understand our root cause approach before you pay for any visits. It is for this reason your initial consultation visit is complimentary.
We want you to achieve success as much as you do. This is a team approach. We do not just hand our patients a pill, far from it. We work extensively together to change your diet, lifestyle, repair faulty organ function and more.
This does not happen overnight, and it will not occur without help. Therefore, we want to ensure you are ready to embark upon the adventure to regain your health with a clear understanding that it will require some work and change on your part. But you are not alone; we are right there with you.
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