Headaches are a common condition but when they are severe, they can become debilitating. A headache may appear as a sharp pain, a throbbing sensation or a dull ache and can develop gradually or suddenly, and may last from less than an hour to several days. Most headaches aren’t the result of a serious illness, but some may result from a life-threatening condition requiring emergency care.
The most common types of headaches are:
- Tension headache (also known as tension-type headache)
- Cluster headache
- Migraine (with and without aura)
- Trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia (TAC), such as cluster headache and paroxysmal hemicrania
Conventional Treatment of Headaches
Conventional treatment of headaches depends on the type of headache and severity but usually relies on anti-inflammatory drugs (ie: NSAIDs), pain-relieving medications (ie: acetaminophen) or tricyclic antidepressants (ie: amitriptyline).
Migraine headaches: Migraine treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and preventing additional attacks. Conventional treatment may include over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin IB®, others), acetaminophen (Tylenol® , others), and aspirin. Prescription medications including triptans, such as sumatriptan (Imitrex®) and zolmitriptan (Zomig®). Preventive medications include metoprolol tartrate (Metoprolol®, Lopressor®), propranolol (Propranolol HCL®), amitriptyline, divalproex sodium (Depakote®, Depakote ER®, Depakote Sprinkle®) or topiramate (Topamax®).
Functional Medicine Management of Headaches
Tension-type headaches are usually managed by the use of herbal muscle relaxants, minerals such as magnesium which support muscle relaxation and pain-relieving herbs. However, some types of headaches such as migraine headaches can be more complicated and require a more comprehensive approach. A comprehensive approach to the management of migraine headaches must take into consideration many aspects of health, including gut barrier integrity and imbalances of gut flora, liver detoxification capacity and toxic burden, hormone imbalances, energy production capacity, nutrient status and immune imbalances which promote inflammatory states. More specifically, Functional Medicine approaches migraine headaches by supporting normal physiology of the organ systems which become imbalanced in this condition and may contribute to the development and progression of the migraines.
There are several areas of management of migraine headache in the Functional Medicine approach:
- Restoring normal gut barrier integrity, digestion and gut microbial balance
- Supporting liver detoxification processes and decreasing toxic load
- Supporting restoration of physiologic hormone levels, including estrogen and progesterone levels throughout the monthly menstrual cycle
- Supporting restoration of brain neurotransmitters and neurotransmitter function responsible for mood, cognition and pain perception
- Supporting energy production by the mitochondria, the “power-houses” of the body’s cells
- Restoring healthy levels of nutrients in cases of nutritional deficiencies
- Identifying and removing food sensitivities which can trigger migraine headaches