72 – Headaches

Bad headaches can be extremely debilitating. Here I tell how I got mine under control, after years of pretty serious suffering.

I am very susceptible to headaches. Mostly they just slow me down, but sometimes they bring me to a complete stop and send me to bed. Those are migraines, sometimes complete with nausea, light sensitivity and visual distortions, and usually lasting 16 to 24 hours. There is something especially awful about going to bed with an agonising migraine, and waking up the next day with it still going full bore.

Headaches have always been a problem for me, but in 2004 they reached new depths; in August of that year I was getting 2 or 3 migraines per week. Apart from the pain, it was getting disruptive to life and work.

Pauline got rightly frustrated with my failure to do something decisive about my headaches, and bought me some books about them. After I’d read them, I felt that one of them really stood out as seeming authoritative and practical. It was Heal Your Headache by David Buchholz, a headache specialist in the Neurology Clinic at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Starting in September 2004, I followed his advice, and since then my frequency of headaches has fallen by a factor of around 20. To thank him, this is an unashamed plug for his book. If you know anyone who suffers from regular headaches, buy them Heal Your Headache.

Buchholz’s advice is firmly grounded in practical experience with thousands of headache patients, many of them patients who had previously been failed by the medical system.

He believes that almost all headaches have the same basic causes. In other words, most headaches are migraines, but their severity varies enormously. There are many potential triggers for headaches, some unavoidable or difficult to avoid (e.g. changes in barometric pressure, menopause, stress) and some much easier to avoid (e.g. dehydration, a range of dietary triggers). If your total load of triggers goes above your personal threshold, you get a headache.

Buchholz focuses a lot on dietary triggers as being the thing that is easiest for most people to manage. He provides a long list of foods and drinks that are migraine triggers for significant numbers of people. The list includes: caffeine, alcohol, MSG, chocolate, salami, aged cheeses, nuts, citrus fruits, bananas, lentils, and dried fruits. Initially I went off everything on the list, but I’ve gradually loosened up a bit and now allow myself small amounts of most things on the list. The only things I totally exclude are caffeine, red wine and MSG, which I think are probably my main triggers. It is hard to tell for certain, though, because it is possible to consume some of a trigger without getting a headache, as long as your total consumption of triggers doesn’t take you above your personal threshold. Conveniently, some foods on the list are things I hate, like faba beans and chicken livers.

The thing that was by far the hardest to go without was red wine. Apart from that, is was really quite easy to change my diet. And, given the benefits of abstinence, even red wine is worth foregoing.

There is a lot more useful stuff in the book (e.g. about medicines), but it was the dietary stuff that really worked for me.

If you know a serious headache sufferer, they need this book.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Buchholz, D. (2002). Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program for Taking Charge of Your Pain, Workman, New York.

“Heady Reading”, a discussion of the above book.

Buy the book from Amazon. And if you don’t believe me read the customer reviews there. All 5-star glowing tributes.