Sometimes It Takes A Village to Cure A Headache
A version of this post originally appeared in HumbleDollar.
We men generally aren’t good about seeking help for things related to our health. When we’re suffering, we tend to suck it up, thinking we can handle it on our own.
But no man (or woman) is an island. Everything we’re experiencing, likely someone around us is experiencing as well in some form or the other. So when it comes to finding solutions to our ailments, it pays to ask around.
I learned the truth of this recently when a chance conversation with a neighbor helped me get to the root of a medical issue that was distressing me to no end.
Last September, I started developing headaches. Every day, I would wake up with a dull ache in my left temple area. The headache often would build during the day, and by evening, I was feeling washed out and pretty miserable.
Tension headaches have been a bane of my existence for many years. They were the price I had to pay for working in the high-pressure corporate world. Tension came with the territory, and so, for me, did the headaches.
But those tension headaches usually would go away when I took a couple ibuprofen and got a good night’s sleep. These recent headaches weren’t going anywhere. They were there every single morning when I woke up, hovering in the background like gremlins aiming to ruin my day.
For anyone who has suffered with headaches, you know how debilitating they can be. They steal your joy and make it hard to find the motivation to get anything done. Headache sufferers also know how hard they can be to diagnose. Many things can bring them on—stress, dehydration, alcohol, sinus congestion, allergies, just to name a few.
I was pretty sure that stress wasn’t the primary cause of these headaches. I’m retired, after all, and while I have responsibilities in my new, second-act career as an author and communications consultant, they are nothing compared to what I used to face on a day-to-day basis.
I drink a lot of water during the day, so dehydration wasn’t the culprit. Neither was alcohol since I am a lightweight in that department.
Sinus headaches? Nope. I’ve had them in the past and know what they feel like.
Allergies? Unlikely. I don’t suffer from allergies and wasn’t sneezing or experiencing other symptoms.
Down the list I went, trying to figure it out. I hate going to the doctor, especially now that I’m insured through the healthcare exchange and have a high-deductible plan. So I bore with it, week after week, hoping the headaches would resolve.
When January came around and I was still having them, I bit the bullet and went to see my primary doctor. He scratched his head and diagnosed me with something called a “new persistent daily headache,” a broad term for a sudden-onset headache that goes on for months without resolving. Unfortunately, he told me, no one is sure exactly what causes them.
At his suggestion, I went to see my dentist, who suspected a temporomandibular disorder (TMD) and put me on a soft diet. To rule out teeth-grinding, I bought a mouth guard and started wearing it at night. Neither the soft diet nor the night guard made a difference in the headaches, however.
At that point, I made an appointment with a neurologist. After an examination and blood tests to rule out anything serious, the neurologist said I was likely having muscle spasms and put me on a ten-day regimen of heavy-duty analgesics.
All the analgesics did was mask the pain, and after ten days, the headaches were back in full force. By now, I had shelled a few hundred bucks on doctor visits and tests. The neurologist’s office wanted me to come back to evaluate other more invasive—and expensive—options like Botox injections, but I didn’t go back.
Then one day last March as I was out walking the dog, I struck up a conversation with my neighbor Barb, who had just come back from an adjustment at her chiropractor. I asked Barb why she was seeing the chiropractor and she told me she, too, had been experiencing daily headaches. After a few weeks of regular adjustments, her headaches were remarkably better.
I’d never visited a chiropractor, believing they were quacks. But desperate for relief, I made an appointment that day, and the following Saturday, I was sitting at the chiropractor’s office getting evaluated. An x-ray showed that the cervical region of my spine had lost much of its curvature. Likely, the chiropractor said, my headaches were cervicogenic in nature.
I found it interesting that none of the other doctors I’d visited had said anything about my headaches being cervicogenic, but it made sense to me. I’d been having neck pain, on and off, for years from all the decades I’d spent staring turtle-necked into computer screens. Now, it seemed, I was paying the price.
I started noticing improvement in the headaches after my first few adjustments, and the improvement has continued since. In addition to weekly visits with the chiropractor, I started seeing a physical therapist (PT) to work on stretching and strengthening my neck muscles.
The combination of the chiropractor and physical therapist has been miraculous. My headaches are now largely gone—without the need of expensive interventions.
Just as important, I am better educated now. Both the chiropractor and PT have taken the time to show me how the cervical spine, neck, and head muscles work together, and why it’s important to approach pain in a holistic way. Every day, I’m doing the exercises recommended by the PT. I’ve woven them into my routine.
I have nothing but admiration for modern medicine. It’s the reason I’m alive today after my bout with colon cancer ten years ago.
But it’s important to keep in mind that every medical practitioner comes to a health issue with a bag of tricks that he or she is familiar with. It’s up to us, as patients, to be aware of all the options out there so that we can make informed decisions regarding our health.
Sometimes the answer to our problem is just a matter to talking to a friend or a neighbor. I’m very thankful I had that conversation with my neighbor Barb over the winter—it has made all the difference in waking up in the morning headache-free.