Headaches: What causes them and how to treat them

Headaches getting you down? Learn to identify the triggers – and the best treatment – for your headaches.

Diagnosing migraine headaches
This story was originally titled "Heal your Headache," in the June 2008 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

Margaret Ellis* was diagnosed with migraine headaches about 15 years ago, when she was 44. During a stressful meeting, the Grade 3 teacher experienced an aura, seeing rainbow-like flashing lights in her field of vision. She also developed a horrible headache – which became more intense the following day. As soon as her meeting ended, Margaret rushed to an ophthalmologist, who diagnosed a migraine headache rather than an eye problem. Her doctor prescribed sumatriptan (Imitrex), a migraine-specific drug that offered some pain relief. But over the next nine years her headaches became much more frequent and severe, sometimes lasting for 24 hours. "I was getting them every day. The pain was physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting. I was in so much pain I was in tears. I couldn't teach and had to go on long-term disability," she says. 

Six years ago Margaret finally got the help she needed. After ruling out a brain tumour as the cause, a neurologist referred her to a multidisciplinary headache clinic at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary. "I'm very fortunate," says Margaret, who benefitted from a broad-based treatment that combined topiramate (Topamax), a preventive anticonvulsant medication, with lifestyle changes.

Margaret learned relaxation techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing and visualization, to prevent and lessen the intensity of migraines. She also does yoga and Pilates once a week, and avoids migraine triggers, such as lack of sleep, too much stress and common food triggers such as cheddar cheese, chocolate and peanuts. As a result, she now gets only a few migraines a month. The headaches are shorter and the pain much less severe. On a scale of  one to 10, with 10 being the most severe, the pain has gone down from a nine to a three. Most importantly, her quality of life has been transformed. Margaret, who is now retired, can attend and enjoy family gatherings, go to concerts, see movies and travel extensively with her husband. "I'm having an extremely fulfilling retirement," she says. "Before I felt cut off and alone. I feel like I've got my life back."

Migraines are the most debilitating type of headache, and tension headaches are the most common, but no matter what the type, headaches exact a heavy toll on Canadian women and men, their families and society.

For instance, more than three million women in Canada suffer from migraines, and 92 per cent of them miss work, school or family functions as a result, according to Headache Network Canada, an organization that provides scientific and medical information on the treatment of headache disorders. Those who suffer frequent attacks – like Margaret, before she got help – lose an average of seven work weeks a year. Migraines alone cost the Canadian economy about $500 million a year. (Figures are not available for the economic cost of all headaches.) 

But it doesn't have to be that way. A 2005 survey by Headache Network Canada found that nearly four out of 10 female migraine sufferers had never consulted a health-care professional about their headaches. "Help is available for all headache sufferers," says Dr. Werner Becker, director of the Calgary Headache Assessment and Management Program, where Margaret was successfully treated.

Page 1 of 5 – read about tension headaches on page 2!

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