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Tips to cope with chronic headaches

More than 5 million South African people have experienced a severe or debilitating headache in the past three months. Migraines alone affect 12% of the population and costs $50 million a year in direct medical expenses. Most people have headaches from time to time. But if you have a headache more days than not, you may be experiencing chronic daily headaches.

My name is Peter, originally from South Africa and I live in Reading, Berkshire.  I have been battling persistent headaches for the past 10 years and it has been a real pain - literally and figuratively! At first my headaches were harmless, fleeting, and would disappear without a trace. More recently, however, they have become progressively severe, aggressive and long lasting.

My chronic headaches tend to have the following features::
• They affect the left side and sometimes both sides of my head
• They have a pulsating, throbbing sensation
• They cause moderate to severe pain
• They are aggravated by routine physical activity


My headaches can last from 2 hours to 3 days and usually happen one to four times per month. When my head is pounding, I just want it to stop- it's unbearable. Along with the pain, I experience sensitivity to light, noise, or smells; nausea; loss of appetite; and an upset stomach - mild to severe tummy ache.

I don’t completely understand what happens in my skull when the headache hits me, but over the years I have observed that I get headaches in the following circumstances: 

When I am stressed

Stress seems to trigger my headaches more than anything. I sometimes get stressed for no apparent reason but sometimes it is because of unresolved issued in my life. Whatever the reason for my stress, I end up with a pounding sensation in my head. When this happens, the only remedy for me is to reach out to Syndol tablets – my favourite headache tablets and the only ones that decisively terminate my headaches.

When I am dehydrated

Because I am diabetic, I tend to get dehydrated quite often. When my blood sugar level is high, my kidneys struggle to keep up and they produce more urine than normal — a condition known as polyuria. As a result, I often become severely dehydrated. The exact connection is unknown, but experts believe it has to do with the way blood volume drops when you're not getting enough water. Lower blood volume means less oxygen is getting to the brain. When I am dehydrated, I get a severe headache and it becomes extremely difficult for me to drive, work, and even carry on a conversation while my head is pounding.

When I catch a cold or have a sinus problem

I also experience severe headaches when I have a fever or common cold. The good news is that the headache goes away after taking antibiotics to knock out the infection.

Disturbed sleep

I like to get full 8 hours of sleep, but occasionally my sleep gets disturbed by small things like barking dogs in the neighbourhood, ambulance siren, or other noisy disturbances that cause me to lose sleep or upset my body clock. In other words, anything that disrupts my body schedule tends to trigger my headaches. 

When I drink too much caffeine.

According to my Doctor, Caffeine causes vasoconstriction in my blood vessels, meaning they get a little narrower. If you drink coffee or other caffeinated drinks every day, your body gets used to it, my Doctor explains. So when you skip it one day, your blood vessels don't become constricted and can make your head hurt. It becomes a vicious cycle, slugging back a mug to find relief, and just further deepening your need for the drug. "It's unrealistic to tell all headache patients to avoid caffeine," my Doctor says. He recommends moderation—a maximum of two caffeinated drinks in one day—to avoid that withdrawal headache when you go without.

When I take too many headache tablets.

 My headaches can be stopped by taking pain relief tablets but taking too many of them can potentially backfire. Before I settled for Syndol, I used to take various headache medicines until I noticed that this was working against me.

Overdoing it on painkillers can actually make the pain worse—research suggests popping these pills too frequently can alter the brain’s ability to regulate pain—and the caffeine in most pain killers can cause withdrawal headaches, compounding the effects. Overuse of any pain medication to treat headaches can cause what's called a rebound headache.

Tips to cope with chronic headaches

Over the years, my Doctor has helped me manage my headaches and I have also realized that, many headaches can be at least partially alleviated without medication, which will help minimize one’s need for pain relievers and reduce the risk of rebound headaches.

Here are some techniques you may want to try for relieving your headaches:

Close your eyes and rest. This is an effective headache treatment for a migraine headache, and can help ease a tension headache as well. Sit in a quiet, dark room with your eyes closed and just relax for a bit. Allow yourself to go to sleep for at least a few hours. Sleeping frequently diminishes or eliminates the pain.

Massage your neck and temples. Rubbing your neck and temples can improve blood flow and soothe tension headaches.

Warm up your neck. Try putting a heating pad or a warm cloth around your neck and the base of your skull to ease tension headaches. If that doesn't help, you can apply an ice pack instead to see if that brings you headache relief.

Relax. Meditate, breathe deeply, and try to visualize a peaceful image. "Various relaxation techniques can significantly help you from 'muscle contraction' headaches," says my Doctor.

Minimize stress. If you have a bad headache, try to step away from stress, literally. Avoid noisy environments, leave work a little early if you can, or ask your partner to take care of chores or the kids.

Watch what you eat and drink. What you put into your body can have a big impact on your headaches. My Doctor advises limiting caffeine and alcohol and avoiding cigarettes. He also says regular meals are important, especially for people who get headaches from low blood sugar. "Do not skip meals, particularly breakfast," he urges.

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