What’s in a Headache?
For most people, headaches are an annoyance that happens from time to time. Stress, poor posture, too much screen time, and illnesses that cause sinus pressure can all cause the occasional headache. An over-the-counter pain reliever, warm shower or bath, a gentle massage, or even a short nap usually takes care of a headache. For some people, though, headaches are chronic and debilitating. These headaches require advanced treatment.
Types of Headaches
There are more than 150 different types of headaches, according to the International Headache Society. Medical professionals categorize these headaches into three main groups: Primary, Secondary, and Other.
Primary headaches are not the result of another condition. The main types of primary headaches include:
- Tension headaches, also known as tension-type headache (TTH)
- Cluster headaches and other types of headaches, known as trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias (TACs)
- Headaches resulting from specific activities or environmental triggers, such as coughing, exercising, engaging in sexual activity, loud noises, exposure to cold temperatures or external pressure
- Other types of headache, such as primary stabbing headache and new daily persistent headache (NDPH)
Secondary headaches develop as the result of something else, such as an injury, medical condition or treatment, withdrawal from caffeine, alcohol, histamine, or other substances, or overuse of medication. Other headaches may be the result of nervous system problems, known as neuropathies. Cranial neuropathy is a disorder associated with damage of the nerves in the head and face.
Primary headaches are the most common type. The most common types of primary headaches include migraines, tension-type, and cluster. As their name suggests, tension headaches may be the result of muscle tension brought about by stress or other environmental factors. Cluster headaches occur in patterns, or clusters, of headache attacks. Migraines may be the result of abnormal brain activity that temporarily affects the nerve signals, chemicals and blood vessels in the brain.
What Causes Headaches?
Headaches develop as the result of a cascade of events involving the brain, blood vessels, and surrounding nerves cells, known as neurons. These events cause pain signals to be sent to the brain, causing a headache. The cascade of events may be the result of environmental trigger, such as stress and diet.
Stress can cause tension and tightness in the muscles of the head and neck; the brain senses this tension and interprets it as pain in the head. Doctors believe this muscle tightness causes tension headaches.
Hunger can trigger a headache. Certain foods, such as chocolate or aged cheese, can also cause headaches. Consuming alcohol, caffeine, and processed foods containing nitrites, nitrates, yellow food dyes, or monosodium glutamate (MSG), can trigger headaches.
Lack of sleep
Sleep disturbances can interrupt sleep, and lack of sleep can trigger headaches. While they are still working to determine the link between sleep and headaches, research suggests a lack of sleep can lower the body’s pain threshold.
Trauma to the head or neck can damage the muscles, blood vessels, or nerves in ways that can disrupt how pain signals travel from the body to the brain.
Treating Headaches with Photobiomodulation
Most headaches respond to conservative treatment, which typically includes resting in a dark, quiet room, applying warm or cold compresses to the head or neck, massage, and over-the-counter medications. Changes in diet or lifestyle can also help for some chronic headaches. Stress reducing approaches, such as biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapy, can also help reduce or even prevent tension headaches. Severe or chronic headaches may require advanced treatment, including prescription medications.
While medications, rest, and lifestyle or behavioral changes can help treat headaches for most people, these measures do not always work for everyone. The treatments may not work for those who experience chronic headaches as the result of head trauma, for example. People with migraines or cluster headaches sometimes benefit from an SPG block, which is a procedure that applies anesthesia to a specific nerve to stop the pain signal from reaching the brain. SPG blocks and other advanced procedures can provide relief, but are often complicated and uncomfortable.
Fortunately, photobiomodulation (PBMT) can effectively treat headaches of all sorts—even those with head trauma that does not respond to conservative treatment. PBMT is non-invasive and comfortable. It can also be combined with other therapies to relieve headaches better.
Photobiomodulation, also known as laser therapy, uses the therapeutic power of light energy to make beneficial changes to the body. When applied to the head, PBMT can make beneficial changes that help stabilize the nerve cells of the brain, reduce damage to those neurons, and stimulate the repair and healing processes. Case reports shows that PBMT effectively treats headaches originating from the cervical spine, which is the upper part of the spinal column.
Other case studies show that a specific type of photobiomodulation, known as transcranial Low Level Laser Therapy (tLLLT), can help with headaches associated with mild and moderate traumatic brain injury (mTBI). Brain injuries can cause significant physiological changes that lead to chronic problems, including headaches. tLLLT can address these changes to help stabilize and reduce neuronal damage, and stimulate repair and healing. Research shows that, in addition to TBI, tLLLT may have a place in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), degeneration of nerves (neurodegeneration), depression, and cognitive impairment.
Laser therapy alleviates headaches by reducing inflammation, improving cervical muscle endurance, and alleviating pain. The light energy in laser therapy penetrates the skin to cause therapeutic changes on a cellular level. Laser light energy stimulates the production of ATP in the mitochondria, or power center, of muscle cells. Ramping up energy production helps strengthens muscle tissue; stronger muscles in the neck and upper back do a better job of supporting the head and are therefore less susceptible to the tension that causes headaches.
While headaches are a common and often unavoidable part of life, they do not have to be debilitating. If you have headaches that are so frequent or severe that they prevent you from going to work, taking care of your family, or doing the things you love, consult with your doctor or other healthcare professional about laser therapy.