What You Need to Know If You Get Headaches
By Dr. Peter Borten, LAc, DAOM, Acupuncturist and Herbalist at The Dragontree Spa and Creator of Imbue Pain Relief Patch
A young man once came to see me for treatment of severe, nearly constant headaches that were ruining his life. He had been having them for about a year. I noticed something about his posture while we were talking. His head came too far forward of his shoulders. If you can imagine what you might do if you were working on a computer and craned your head forward to see something in small print on the screen – this was the resting position of his head. It was subtle. But I know to look for it, especially since I have some tendency to do this myself. In my case, I think it started from playing saxophone while growing up. I spent eight years bringing my head forward to get my mouth on the mouthpiece of the instrument.
Though I didn’t actually expect him to say yes, for some reason I found myself saying, “You don’t happen to play the saxophone by any chance, do you?”
“What? Yes!” he responded. “How did you know that?!”
I was probably almost as surprised as he was. This seemed to make me instantly credible – and seemingly in possession of some psychic abilities – so I don’t think he believed me when I said, “Wild guess.”
After doing the usual tests, I proceeded to examine his neck and his upper back. I found the muscles to be quite tight and full of active trigger points. Without doing any other treatment, I put about twenty acupuncture needles directly into these tight muscles, primarily along the inside edges of the shoulder blades (that is, between the shoulder blades and the spine, right up against the shoulder blade), and I let him lie there under a heat lamp for about 45 minutes.
That one treatment was all it took to end the cycle of headaches. He called me some months later and said he had meant to come back, but since he no longer had headaches, he wasn’t sure if it made any sense. I told him to save his money.
I never tell people to expect results like this. Some types of pain are exceedingly stubborn. But this kind of miraculous healing happens often enough that I’m no longer surprised by it. I can take some of the credit, since I happened to be the guy who delivered the treatment, but it’s mostly just a matter of paying attention and knowing what to look and feel for.
While headaches can be a symptom of a huge range of problems, from brain tumors to chemical exposure to dehydration, this was nothing more than a tension headache. And tension headaches always involve myofascial trigger points – hyperirritable lumps in strained, tight muscles. Most of the time, they can be neutralized quite readily with the right kind of acupuncture or massage. Afterwards, I nearly always follow the treatment with application with one of my Imbue patches. Sometimes, if I don’t have time for a treatment, I’ll just give a patient some of the patches, and frequently they report that the pain went away even without any other treatment.
I also tell them to drink about half the number of pounds they weigh as ounces of water (for instance, a 120 pound person would drink 60 ounces of water), spread out over the whole day. Plus, I give them a lacrosse ball and tell them to do their own maintenance by lying on the floor with knees bent, placing the ball under the back at the most tender area, and then waiting and relaxing. Then, the ball is moved to another tender spot, and so on, until the whole area feels better. Often, fifteen minutes of work with a ball can stop a tension headache. You can read more about this in the head pain section of the Pain Expert tool I created for the Imbue website: www.imbuebody.com
So, while I encourage anyone with severe or unusual headaches to see your medical provider, it’s always worthwhile to also check out the muscles of the back of your neck and your upper back. Our activities revolve so much around our heads and upper limbs, this area is just particularly prone to getting cranky.
One more thing. If you spend a lot of time sitting in a chair at a table or desk, using a computer or doing some other work with your hands, not only are your neck and upper back likely strained, it’s also probable that your shoulders are rounded forward much of the time. This is especially true if you use a laptop, because the narrow keyboard makes you bring your hands close together. Over time, this can promote shortening of the chest muscles – the pectorals. That is, the distance between the shoulders and the breastbone (sternum) becomes shorter than is healthy. If your chest is compressed this way, then your shoulder blades are going to be spread wider in the back than is natural, which perpetuates strain of the upper back muscles. Therefore, in order to release the upper back muscles in a sustainable way, you often must pay attention to your posture, keeping your shoulders back and your chest open. Chest-opening stretches, acupuncture and massage of the chest will help, too.
Dr. Peter Borten