(March, 2011) Scientists classify headaches into three major categories: primary, secondary, and cranial neuralgias (including facial pain and other headaches). Headache sufferers may also classify them into three categories: nasty, nastier, and with a nod to Bruce Springsteen, “freight train running through the middle of my head.”
Primary headaches include migraines, tension headaches (the most common type, brought on by physical or emotional stress and experienced by as much as 90 percent of adults), cluster headaches, and a litany of less common types. Secondary headaches are those caused by underlying structural issues in the neck or head such as tumors, meningitis, and encephalitis. The third type of headache, cranial neuralgias, is caused by inflamed nerves in the head and upper neck.
That Makes My Head Hurt!
Migraines affect about 12 percent of the population, with women tending to be more prone to them than men. Although the causes are not yet fully understood, they seem to be triggered by abnormal brain activity, stress, certain foods, or environmental factors.
For the most common type—tension headaches triggered by stress—the most obvious answer is perhaps the best one: Relax. But, as you know, telling your mind and body to relax isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Yoga, meditation, and other mind/body techniques can help, but they’re not always practical in the middle of a busy workday or while shepherding the flock to piano lessons or soccer practice.
Here are some herbal approaches to subduing migraines and other forms of primary headaches:
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus), sometimes called purple butterbur or sweet coltsfoot, is a perennial shrub native to Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern Asia. Even American Indians have used it to treat headaches. Some studies have shown it to be effective in reducing the frequency of migraine headaches by as much as 50 to 60 percent after taking a standardized butterbur extract.
Native to southeastern Europe, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is now widespread throughout Europe, North America, and Australia. Feverfew is a short perennial that blooms between July and October, giving off a strong and bitter odor. A German study found that migraine sufferers given a CO2-based extract of feverfew experienced significantly reduced frequency of migraine headaches after taking this extract 3 times a day for 16 weeks. Other research has shown that carbon dioxide extract of feverfew decreased the frequency of migraine attacks from 4.76 per month to 1.9 per month, while further research describes a three-month trial in which a combination of feverfew with magnesium and vitamin B2 provided a 50 percent decrease in migraine attacks.
If you’re looking for a headache remedy with a long history of success, look no further than white willow (Salix alba). As far as back as 400 BC, Hippocrates touted the pain-relieving effects of willow bark. Some 2,200 years later, Henri Leroux, a French pharmacist, managed to crystallize the extract (salicin) leading to the invention of salicylic acid, commonly known today as aspirin. Studies show that willow can be as effective as aspirin for relieving pain. For some people, it’s less likely to produce gastrointestinal side effects such as upset stomach.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita) essential oil not only has a refreshing scent but it’s also been shown to provide relief from headaches. One 2010 study showed a significant reduction in reducing or eliminating headache pain altogether when a peppermint solution was applied to the forehead, helping tense muscles to relax and release their painful grip. Mix essential oils with a vegetable-based carrier oil before applying them directly to the skin.
Native to Central America, Florida, and the West Indies, the root bark of the Jamaica dogwood (Piscidia piscipula) has been used to relieve pain since the middle of the nineteenth century, but it’s not for everyone. Children, the elderly, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take Jamaica dogwood. Because its side effects can include numbness and sedation, this herb is best taken (as a tea, fluid extract, or tincture) only under the supervision of a qualified healthcare provider.
No matter the cause, headaches are never pleasant. But with the right phytomedicines, their frequency, intensity, and duration might not be as irritating or debilitating. In consultation with your health practitioner, find an herb that works for you and tell your headaches to hit the highway.