Tension headaches result when the musdes of your scalp or the nerves supplying them release lactate, serotonin, bradykinin and prostaglandins, any of which significantly lower the pain threshold. This usually occurs when we are stressed, our 'fight or flight' mechanisms have been activated, and the unresolved stimulation keeps us in a state of potentially destructive tension.
In Western phytotherapy, the sedative herbs Scutellaria lateriflora (hoodwort or skullcap) and Betonica officinalis (sachys or betony) are sometimes given together to relieve tension headaches (British Herbal Pharmacopoeia, Part I, Cowling, W Yorks: British Herbal Medicine Association, 1976: 35, 183). Panacetum parthenium (feverfew) is also known to inhibit the release of serotonin and histamine, and to reestablish proper blood vessel tone (Lancet, 1985; i: 1071-4), although it can cause mouth ulcers.
Ilex paraguariensis (Jesuits' Brazil tea) has also successfully treated stress-induced headaches or those resulting from fatigue (British Herbal Pharmacopoeia, Part II, Cowling, W
Yorks: British Herbal Medicine Association, 1979: 97).
In Oriental medicine, the analgesic herb Fang feng (Ledebouriella root) is sometimes given, together with the tranquillizing Tian nan zing (root of Jack-in-the-pulpit) for headache, as well as other pains such as toothache or earache. Just be aware that Tian nan zing can have toxic effects in the mouth and throat if eaten raw (D Bensky & A Gamble, Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica, Seattle, Washington: Eastland Press, 1986; 32-33: 191-2).
Acupuncture has been shown to be more beneficial than orthodox medication when given over at least three months (J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatr,1984; 47: 333-7).
Another offbeat way of relieving headaches caused by flu is to do as the African Zulus have traditionally done, and pound the bark and leaf of Ilex mitis (Cape holly), mix it in water, working up a lather, and wash your body with it (Ann S Afr Museum, 1917; 16: 1).
Studies have shown that people suffering from chronic tension headaches have sensitised central nervous systems or even impaired muscles from chronic painful stimulation, making them more sensitive to pain (J Manip Physiol Therap, 1998; 21: 438). In some cases, the trapezius muscle of the spine is actually impaired (J Manip Physiol Therap, 1995; 18: 333).
These problems can be improved by a physical-therapy regimen, which includes postural reeducation, isotonic home exercises, massage and stretching of the cervical spine muscles (J Manip Physiol Therap, 1996; 19: 554).
Manipulative therapy (as used in osteopathy and chiropractic) has been shown to be more effective over the long term in treating tension headaches than many of the more orthodox remedies, such as ice packs (Cephalalgia, 1990, 10: 241-50), amitriptyline hydrochloride ( J Manip Physiol Therap, 1995; 18: 148-54), soft-tissue mobilization or even brief rest (J Am Osteop Assoc, 1979; 78: 322-5). Tiger Balm, that Eastern essential-oil cure-all, applied topically at the temples, might offer instant, but short-term, relief. Although effective from 5-15 minutes after application, it ceases to work after three hours, according to a controlled trial (Aust Fam Phys, 1996; 25: 216-22).
One overlooked and common cause of tension headaches has been shown to be the temporomandibular joint dysfunction syndrome (Dent Pract, 1982; 13: 1). Correction of the problem can go a long way toward resolving chronic head pain (Br Dent J, 1986; 161: 1703).
Soft-laser acupuncture and classical homoeopathic treatment haven't been shown to work for this condition.
Harald Gaier is a registered osteopath, naturopath and homoeopath.