The Headache Clinic
The Headache Clinic

If you're someone who is plagued with headaches, you're not alone.

Almost one in six people around the world have a headache on any given day, according to new research by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Listen to the full interview:

It also revealed that 52 percent of the world's population had a headache in the past year while 7 percent experience migraines daily and 9 percent have a tension-type headache daily.

The Headache Clinic founder Helen Tufui tells Karyn Hay although headaches are prevalent, they're not exactly normal - often it's your body's way of telling you something.

"[Researchers] know people with headache and migraine have a sensitised brain stem and if you can figure out what is sensitising the brain stem then you can get to the underlying cause of what is happening with your headache and migraine."

Tufui herself suffered from daily headaches and was fortunate enough to find the cause. She then went to Australia to conduct some studies and came back to New Zealand and opened her clinics.

While there are more than 300 types of headaches and migraines, an international headache disorder classification recognises certain features which set migraines apart.

But what they both have in common is a sensitised brain stem, Tufui says.

Influences on the brain stem, which is at the base of the brain and connects to the spinal cord, include your posture and use of upper neck and back muscles, she says.

"[Researchers] know that the information from the head itself as well as the information from the structures at the top of the neck enter directly into the brain stem.

"There's increasing evidence for the influence that the upper cervical spine or top of the neck has over that area and that's definitely what we're finding in our clinic as well."

A sensitised brain stem will have a reduced tolerance to events like tiredness, stress, dehydration and hormonal fluctuation, she says.

"You can have a pure trigger of every month, bang on, day one or day before your menstrual cycle, always get a headache or migraine but if you desensitise the brain stem by looking at what's causing that sensitivity then you can reduce that threshold, if you like, in bringing that down."

People with headaches and migraines also have a higher level of inflammation throughout their whole body, she says.

"Some people get huge relief from low inflammatory diets, so they can be things like the keto diet ... ensuring you get sleep can also bring down inflammation levels in the body.

"There's quite a few ways you can tackle it, but really it's trying to dig into what's causing it rather than just reaching for the pills.

"That's okay if you get a headache very infrequently but if you're suffering and you're reaching for the pills day after day, you really want to get to the bottom of what's going on there."

Increased screen time can be a trigger too, she says. Her clinic is seeing more children and adolescents who have developed a bad posture due to screen time, and that ultimately affects the brain stem.

"Kids now are getting a device when they're toddlers.

"They are growing up with a head looking down for such long periods of time at a device and that's having a massive effect on the top of the neck which is then leading to noxious information being sent into the brain stem, creating a sensitivity and resulting in a headache.

"Or for children, it can often be stomach pain or food intolerances as well. There's quite a list that goes in behind all that."

But there is a way to have screen time without the harmful effects on your posture. Tufui recommends looking at your biomechanics and how you're sitting.

"You don't have to sit with your hand on your knee and your face right on top of the phone, bent forward, you can actually sit up tall and just nod your head to look down, like your head actually nods on top of your spine without moving your head and your neck together."

The return of the school year is often when our students will experience an increased risk of headache and migraine. With all the mask-wearing and social changes to our school days at the moment, the last thing we need to add to this is headache or migraine. 

With hot and often humid weather, slouching in your chair or lying on your school desk seems like an attractive option. Combine that with the fact that you can’t sleep in until midday like you were during the holidays, some dehydration, plus the stress and anxiety about your new class, new teachers, and the gorgeous new kid who is sitting next to you in maths…what’s the end result? Headache or, even worse, migraine.

Head pain has a huge impact on how we can concentrate and function, so as we get into another year of study - it’s important to ensure that it’s started off on the right foot!

What causes headaches and migraines?

To understand how to deal with head pain, we need to understand what is causing it in the first place. When no pathology is present, the brainstem plays a significant role in headaches and migraines.

The brainstem is a structure found at the base of the brain that receives information directly from the top of the neck and the head itself. We know that people who suffer from headaches and migraines have a sensitised brainstem, which results in reduced tolerance to normal events in the body, such as tiredness, stress, and dehydration.

A common cause of this brainstem sensitivity is a dysfunction or issue at the top of the neck. This dysfunction can be caused by a trauma to the head or neck area (think whiplash) or from sustained pressure applied to the top of the neck - such as the forward head posture when sitting looking at your phone. 

Our 5 top tips for reducing the risk of headache and migraine

To help reduce the dysfunction at the top of the neck, we’ve come up with 5 top tips!

1. Posture is key! When in class or doing your homework, ensure that you are sitting with good posture. Make sure that your head is aligned on top of your shoulders and not hanging forward. One of the worst places to sit doing homework is on your bed with all your work out in front of you! 

2. Make sure your screen font is large enough to comfortably read from a good posture to prevent your head from craning forward. Craning forward will put a lot of pressure through the structures at the top of the neck and increase the likelihood of headaches and migraines. 

3. When looking down at your study material, try nodding your head on top of your neck rather than moving your head and neck as one unit. 

4. Make the most of your breaks between class. Go for a short walk and be observant, moving your head to look around you.

5. Prioritise sleep. It’s really hard to hold it all together when you’re tired! 

Research also shows that poor alignment at the top of the neck can reduce the blood flow to the brain, which is something you need a lot of when you are studying! 

If this sounds like you and you’d like more information on this, feel free to give us a call at 0800 HEADACHE (0800 432 322) or email [email protected]. We have a discounted student rate!

Summer

You have finally hit the road to head away on a family holiday after some last-minute frantic packing. Five minutes down the road, the kids are screaming in the back seat, the sun is pouring in through the windscreen, and you can’t find your drink bottle… maybe it’s still on the bench?

At this time of year, so many of our triggers are in full force. Late nights, alcohol, chocolate, travel, heat and lets not forget trying to keep the peace with the family. We are vulnerable to headache and migraine over the holiday period, and the last place you want to spend your holiday is in a dark, cool room.

To better understand how we can help take control of our headaches and migraines, we first need to know what is happening. 

What causes headache and migraine?

The common underlying condition in headache and migraine is a sensitised brainstem. Think of this like a decreased threshold. When the brainstem is sensitised, your tolerance to normal events is decreased. That’s why you want to scream when you spill your coffee, or the kids are arguing. Our tolerance to stress, tiredness, and even dehydration is decreased when our brainstem is sensitised.

The great news here is that the structures at the top of the neck have a direct connection to the brainstem and can be the driver of our sensitivity. By decreasing the strain at the top of the neck, you can reduce your sensitivity and improve your tolerance! Hallelujah!

Reducing the impact of headache and migraine

So what can you do to improve your tolerance to stress and decrease your risk of headache and migraine this summer?

  • Sleep routine - Be consistent. Try to get to bed at a reasonable hour and get out of bed at the same time each day. If you find you frequently wake during the night or are a light sleeper, consider taking a high-quality magnesium supplement.
  • Take a walk - Walking is not just good for your mental health and overall wellbeing, it can also significantly improve your headache. Walk tall and be nosey and check out what is happening around you. This is a nice gentle movement for the top of your neck and can take away some of the strain from scrolling through your phone.
  • Device use - Take breaks every 30 minutes and think about how you are positioned when using it. Sitting slumped forward with your head hanging over your phone or lying on your back with pillows stacked behind your head will increase the pressure at the top of the neck and put you at high risk of headache or migraine.
  • Try some meditation - Slow down that busy brain! There are lots of apps with guided meditations or simply find a secluded spot to sit and bask in the quietness. It’s amazing how just five minutes of quiet can give you the ability to get through. 
  • Breathing - Your belly should rise and fall with each breath. Focus on taking slow breaths that fill to the bottom of your lungs and slowly exhale.
  • Sit tall - Having great posture decreases the loading through the top of the neck. This can directly influence the sensitivity into the brainstem. When you have been sitting for 30 minutes, change position or get up and move.
  • Have fun – Laughter activates the parasympathetic nervous system (our ‘rest and digest’ system) and is linked with a healthy tone in the vagus nerve. Ten minutes of laughter a day is all it takes!

We can’t help with the chaos that comes with having family at home, but we can help take the headache out of summer.

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