Educate about headaches in June

Patients must take active role in diagnosis

To manage chronic headaches, the sufferer must play a key role.

"Self-education is an important part. It is going to be difficult for your doctor, nurse, or nurse practitioner to put enough time in to teach you everything you need to know about managing a headache," says Robert Dalton, executive director of the National Headache Foundation in Chicago.

Knowing which web sites provide reliable information, as well as the right books and periodicals to read, are important, he says. Not only will personal research help people uncover methods for managing their headaches, but it will also help patients form pointed and direct questions about issues of managing headaches to ask their physician, he adds.

The message of self-education is an important one to deliver during National Headache Awareness Week, June 6-12. Also stress the importance of a proper diagnosis, says Dalton. Headache problems need to be properly diagnosed, and one reason is that chronic headaches could be a biological disorder.

Persistent or severe headache is often a biological disorder and needs proper treatment. That may seem obvious, but the reality is that many people ignore it, thinking it is just a symptom rather than a core problem in and of itself, says Dalton.

Frequently, people go to a physician that does not have extensive experience treating complex headaches. Therefore, after trying one or two common treatment regimens, they come to the conclusion that the headaches really are caused by stress or some other health issue and never find the right treatment, he explains. People with chronic headaches usually need to see a physician with expertise in treating complex headaches.

Treatments for serious headaches are not the same for each person. The right mix of medication must be determined, what types of non-medical treatments might be helpful, and the dietary issues that need to be addressed are all part of the management plan.

Patients not only play an active role in the diagnosis, but also in the treatment regimen, which is an ongoing process. Dalton says that people may find a medication that keeps them headache-free for a long period of time, but sometimes the body's reaction to the medication changes and a new treatment plan is needed.

It is a good idea for people to keep a headache log, says Dalton. This would track such information as the frequency of attacks, what was happening at the time the headache was triggered; possible triggers; types of medication taken; whether treatment steps provided complete, moderate, or no relief; and the duration of the headache.

Headaches can have a multitude of triggers, says Dalton. These include food, fragrance, noise, changes in weather, exertion such as hard physical labor, and failure to keep hydrated.

A log or diary helps physicians figure out the right regimen, he says. Log sheets for tracking headaches, as well as a series of questions to answer when keeping a log, are available at the National Headache Foundation web site ( Also available are a series of quizzes that will provide information that helps with the initial diagnosis, says Dalton.

A new service found on the web site is an education portal called "Headache U: It's all about YOU." It is a headache education program designed to help people with headaches take steps toward getting relief. It covers three key principals of headache care: the personal nature of headache; the importance of understanding personal headache patterns; and the link between charting headaches and getting relief.

Increasing awareness about headaches and proper treatment is vital, because millions suffer, says Dalton. It is estimated that 29.5 million Americans have migraines and 10 million have other types of severe headaches, such as cluster headaches. These headaches cause excruciating pain in the vicinity of the eye and occur daily for weeks or months and then disappear for a time.

There are a multitude of headache types and causes. Some headaches are not chronic but caused by such factors as drinking too much alcohol or withdrawing from the use of caffeine. Other headaches are caused by illness, such as those that develop with fever. Sometimes headaches are a symptom of another medical problem, such as a tumor or aneurysm.

However, certain benign headaches are biological disorders that need to be diagnosed and treated properly. National Headache Awareness Week is an opportunity to help community members sort out the various types and causes and perhaps find relief after years of suffering.

Dalton says chronic headache tends to influence the personalities of the people who get them, often resulting in depression or causing people to be withdrawn. Therefore, it is also important to help people address the emotional side of headaches by directing them to support groups or blogs where they can interact with other people who understand their issues.


For more information about participating in National Headache Awareness Week, contact:

  • Robert Dalton, Executive Director, National Headache Foundation, 820 N. Orleans, Chicago, IL 60610-3132. Telephone: (312) 274-2652. E-mail: