There are all kinds of statistics out there on how common headaches are. But even without looking at those we could safely say that either you or someone you know has suffered from a headache at some stage in their life. Having a headache once or twice in a lifetime is not the big issue – of course there are all kinds of drug companies that will help get rid of the headache in no time.
However, if you or someone you know is experiencing headaches frequently – that is an issue. Medication is a short term solution, not long term because they can create new problems from constant use. This is pretty much common knowledge these days.
So how do you relieve headaches naturally? This is something most medical professionals are unable to give us an answer for. I myself used to suffer from frequent headaches and only taking pain killers or anti-inflammatory drugs and sleeping for a few hours helped me. But it wasn’t sustainable – it wasn’t healthy, and I couldn’t keep taking days off work.
So I started researching it – I tried GPs, physios, chiropractors, osteopaths – you name it and I have tried it. In the end, I discovered craniosacral therapy which has helped me immensely,and now I no longer experience headaches. In fact, experiencing how CST can help first hand is what motivated me to become a CST practitioner. In this article, I will go over what I found in my research.
Let’s start at the beginning – what are headaches?
Of course everyone knows what a headache is but in terms of medical talk, headaches can be described as pain in the head or top of the neck. And they can be divided into two broad categories – Primary & Secondary.
Secondary headaches occur only 10% of the time, and are secondary to something more serious – like a tumour or a head injury. If you suspect this type of headache or you are unsure, please seek medical attention – your doctor will be able to quickly rule this out if it’s not the cause.
Primary headaches are much more common – they occur 90% of the time and can be broadly classified into 3 types – tension, migraine & cluster.
“>What is a tension headache?
The majority of the time, when people complain about having a headache they are most likely talking about a tension headache. Around 80%of the population will experience a tension headache at some stage or another in their lifetime.
How can you tell one apart? Tension headaches are usually characterised by a dull ache or constant pressure, which tends to be on both sides of the head. The pain is typically mild when compared to migraines, but can range to severe.
What is a migraine?
Migraines are a lot more serious as they are a debilitating type of headache. Not as common as tension headaches, but still 17% of the population suffers from them. They also tend to be more common in women than they are in men.
Migraines are characterised by severe pain, which is often pulsating in nature – you might think of it is as a throbbing pain and it usually affects only one side of the head. While experiencing this type of headache, you might also have symptoms like nausea, vomiting or sensitivity to light and sound. Some migraine sufferers also experience a signal before having an attack – for instance a disturbance in vision, movement or language. Migraines typically last from 3 hours to 3 days.
From my personal experience and research, I found that migraines are often, (but not always) associated with a trigger. This can be anything from bright lights, stress, anxiety, exposure to chemicals, over-excercising, to nutritional triggers such as alcohol, caffeine, dehydration or MSG.
What causes migraines?
It was originally thought that a headache is caused by the blood vessels in the cranium narrowing, while a migraine is caused by the expansion of those blood vessels. However newer evidence suggests this may not be the case & that this vascular model is not necessarily the cause of migraines. When you research further you don’t really find any causes, only observations of the brain during a migraine, such as:
- brainstem becomes activated
- neurons in the brain and trigeminal nerve become “abnormally excitable”
- messages traveling through the trigeminal nerve cause Dural blood vessels to dilate
- trigeminal nerve activation also causes the release of chemicals in the brain called neuropeptides
- neuropeptides cause inflammation in the brain and sensitisation of other pain cells nearby
Note: these changes in the brain are also what is behind the migraine aura – visual or sensory effects prior to, during or sometimes independently of a migraine. When the chemicals become imbalanced & the brain becomes activated in the sensory areas, these aura effects occur.
Although the research is progressing, I don’t see these as causes, but “observations”. Yes, the brainstem becomes activated, but why? Yes, neuropeptides are released causing inflammation, but why
Whenever I treat people with migraines I’m always amazed at how active their nervous systems are. I can certainly feel that brain becomes “abnormally excitable” & there is definitely inflammation, so I agree with the above science, but I’m more interested in what starts this whole process off. Chronic pain itself can cause an activation of the nervous system, but surely something happens first before the pain response even starts. Getting to the bottom of this is what we work with in Craniosacral Therapy. From observation I have found a few reasons for this response:
- Environmental sensitivity
- Food sensitivity
- Body toxicity
- Unresolved trauma – this is the most important one!
I believe migraines remain relatively untreated by the medical community because they don’t fit the single cause model that it runs on. The other reason is that you can’t easily manufacture a drug for the above causes.
Unresolved trauma is what I experience to be the single biggest factor in migraines. Food & Environmental Sensitivities can certainly be causal, however I believe most of the time these are more likely to be side effects from a nervous system that is already in overload. I will address these factors below.
1. & 2. Food & Environmental Sensitivity
Food & environmental sensitivity e.g. “migraine triggers” definitely occur, but many clients report inconsistency. Sometimes chocolate or caffeine triggers a migraine, sometimes it doesn’t. This is why I believe it is more about the nervous system being overloaded and oversensitive than it is about a food being the sole cause. When overloaded, something the body can normally tolerate becomes a food that tips the system over the edge. This could explain the variability of triggers.
Note that in some cases, it is possible for food and environmental factors to be the cause of migraines – a signal that we are consistently making poor dietary choices or that prolonged exposure to a particular environment is not healthy for us – so it is certainly helpful to become aware of what you are putting into your body and the quality.
For completion, here is a list of some common nutritional and environmental migraine triggers to be aware of:
- Bright or flickering lights
- exposure to chemicals
- pickled or fermented food
- changes in temperature, humidity, barometric pressure
- sulphites – found in dried fruits
- Tyramine or Phenylethylamine – found in aged cheeses, chocolate, soy, nuts, citrus, vinegar
- nitrites – found in preserved meats
- tannins – found in tea, cider, red wine, red apples
- food additives – e.g. MSG, aspartame, yeast extract, hydrolysed vegetable protein, artificial colours, flavours
3. Body Toxicity
Occasionally I sense toxicity to be a significant factor in migraines. Toxicity occurs when the body has difficulty processing unwanted compounds. Sometimes this occurs in conjunction with unresolved trauma. Toxicity can be for many reasons, but some examples are:
- anaesthetic residues
- exposure to heavy metals
- agricultural sprays
- incomplete recovery from pathogens
- reactions to immunisations
- general toxicity from poor diet
It is important to note that some of these sources may well be from an event in the past because the body stores these toxins when it isn’t able to deal with them. When we start to release held tissue in Craniosacral Therapy, we are often able to sense the reason for congestion is not from physical trauma and instead it’s tissue dealing with a foreign compound. When we mobilise the tissues with Craniosacral we can help these toxins to process.
4. Unresolved Trauma
The human body is constantly reacting to thoughts and feelings as we have experiences in life. We only need to look at someone’s body language to see how their day has been. When there has been a particularly stressful experience the reaction within the body can be greater – tightening of tissues and elevation of the nervous system. This response is ok, but sometimes recovery doesn’t take place and parts of the body don’t go back to normal. This is called trauma. Trauma can occur from a physical injury or an event that is stressful. When trauma is held in the body for a long time symptoms such as tension, pain, anxiety, headaches etc. can appear and persist
Note that the trauma doesn’t need to be physical to get a very physical response. When you have any experience that overwhelms the coping mechanisms, trauma will result. This could be the shock of a car accident, abuse, loss of a family member or a high pressure situation at work. In all of these situations, the body is loyally responding to your experience of the situation which results in an internal stress response.
This is what I find is the most common reason for migraines. Physiologically it results in a “background” fight or flight state. Fight or flight results in us being “switched on” or “on alert” all the time. Essentially your brain is looking our for danger, constantly. This is why we migraines sufferers become so sensitive to their environment & have to shut down for a few days during a migraine attack.
So how can CST help?
Craniosacral therapy is very effective for working with unresolved trauma & settling the fight or flight response. It doesn’t matter whether the trauma is caused from a physical impact or traumatic experience. Essentially CST winds the body down from this state in each session, & over time this becomes the new set point. Tension also releases as this occurs.