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Are You Ready to Kiss Your Headaches Goodbye?

November 3, 2015

There are many different kinds of headaches. Tension headaches, which are the most common form, involve a constant pressure feeling around the head. Cluster headaches occur in cycles — they can be severe in an area of the head. Sinus headaches occur with inflamed sinuses, particularly from an infection and can be accompanied with a fever. Migraines are often considered the worst type of headache because of the level of pain intensity that is involved. These are just a few of the myriad ways that our head can hurt. Available treatment varies as well, ranging from over-the-counter medication such as aspirin or Tylenol, and prescription medicine, to antibiotics if the headache is related to a sinus infection.

Alternative treatments include options like acupuncture and massage to help release tension in the head. In fact, there are many approaches that are focused on reducing headaches.

Let’s take a step back and consider some potential underlying factors. Research indicates that headaches can be related to stress, something that we all experience. It would be impossible to be free from stress entirely. So how can we go about our lives without symptoms associated from stress? Additionally, could inflammation play a part in stress and our overall immune health?

When we discuss stress as a factor relating to headaches, it is helpful to consider our stress threshold. How much stress can we handle before we begin to feel symptoms? There are multiple reasons for why our stress threshold may be lower than optimal. One possibility is inflammation and reduced immune health in our body. Another possibility is postural issues specific to part of our spine being out of alignment and creating tension on our head and neck. There are many reasons why we may experience headaches on a regular basis. Let’s focus on these possibilities.

Based on comparing health scores and health risk scores of countries with populations of at least one million, Bloomberg Rankings lists the United States as the 33rd healthiest country in the world. This number is daunting when considering the number of Americans with diabetes and cardiovascular conditions. But how did we get to this point? The standard American diet is filled with inflammatory foods. Unfortunately, our diet is one of the unhealthiest diets in the world, comprised largely of foods that can contribute to disease and illness. For individuals suffering from regular headaches, improving diet may be very helpful. Consider a diet of less inflammatory foods.

Here are the basics: plenty of diverse vegetables, natural protein, reduced refined sugars, less grain, lots of water, and good fats such as olive oil, avocadoes, and nuts. Imagine a dinner plate — how do we choose the right portions? Here is a basic breakdown of a healthy plate: 25% natural protein, such as natural poultry, wild fish, or grass-fed beef (no more tan the size of a hockey puck); 50% diverse vegetables (raw and cooked); 25% starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes or butternut squash. It is also important to eat lots of healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, and avocadoes. In addition, drinking enough water is essential for reducing inflammation and headaches as well as improving overall health of the body. We are often dehydrated without knowing it! Drinking lots of water through the day can be the greatest panacea.

When considering headaches, it is important to consider our spine. We are a composite of our entire lives… our body, particularly our spine, is a reflection of this. It may be difficult to remember all the injuries we have incurred in our lives but they all can build on one another to create the body that we have today. Often, when someone experiences regular headaches, including severe migraine headaches, it is largely because of poor alignment of the spine following one or multiple injuries. One successful way of improving the health and posture of our body is with Integrative Manual Therapy or IMT. IMT is a type of gentle, hands-on bodywork performed by some physical therapists, massage therapists, occupational therapists and chiropractors that are specially trained.

When the spine is out of alignment, one thought would be to mobilize it back into a normal neutral position by using traditional chiropractic or physical therapy, but this does not always work. Sometimes, there are underlying factors for why the spine is out of alignment. Consider the concept of a protective mode. When there is something in the body that is injured or weak, the body will commonly limit movement or mobility around that area purposefully so that we don’t make the injured area worse by moving. This is often the cause of why we feel locked up in our lower back. But when the body locks up to protect an area, this can cause a lot of pain. Though the lower back will often go into a protective mode, this can cause considerable neck and head symptoms. Most of our body’s movement stems from the lower back. When the lower back locks up, movement in our entire body is limited. This limitation of movement can contribute to headaches as well as neck and upper back stiffness and pain.

Integrative Manual Therapy can be very successful in identifying the underlying reasons for a locked up spine. The IMT therapist is trained to find these areas and implement gentle, hands-on techniques to improve the health of these areas by promoting circulation to the area and drainage from the region, reducing tissue tension and improving health of the injured tissues. By creating greater health in the protected area, the body requires less protection and the locked up area of the spine begins to loosen. At this point, as the spine is gently mobilized, there are more long lasting results in movement and pain, including a reduction in headaches.

The idea of treating the lower back to reduce headaches may seem odd. We can consider the old children’s song, which has passed through the ages: “the neck bone’s connected to the head bone…” The body is complex and remarkable in the way that it works. In this case, the concept of a protective mode makes a lot of sense. Our bodies have a great capacity for healing. Equally, when our body is injured and we need to function, we have a great ability to compensate and protect ourselves. By improving the health of our body through diet and bodywork, we can feel better and return to a lifestyle that is unencumbered by headaches.

Ayelet Connell-Giammatteo, PhD, PT, IMT,C is the President and Owner of Integrative Wellness and Physical Therapy in Bloomfield, CT, a wellness center specializing in holistic Physical Therapy, Integrative Manual Therapy (IMT), and nutritional wellness. Dr. Connell-Giammatteo is a Physical Therapist and Certified Integrative Manual Therapist. She has been practicing for over 15 years. Dr. Connell-Giammatteo received her Bachelor’s Degree in Physical Therapy from The University of Hartford in Connecticut. She received her Doctoral Degree from Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, Ohio, focusing in neuropediatrics, with a concentration in autism. 


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