(Disclaimer: This blog post is written from my personal experience. Please always consult a doctor or healthcare provider about your condition.)
Headaches were one of my worst symptoms after my concussion that I sustained in a car accident in 2016. It's not surprising, as my head and neck had been slammed forwards and backwards in a forceful way by the force of a 2- to 3-ton Land Rover driving into the back of my car when I was stationary at a roundabout with my handbrake on. I sustained a concussion and a whiplash injury to my neck, shoulder and back.
I can't remember exactly how long I had daily headaches for, but I'm pretty sure it was about a year and a half. Certainly, for the first few months, the pain was very intense on a daily basis. The pain extended from my neck up into my head – at the back, on top, down the sides and along my forehead. Sometimes the pain would seem localised in one place, like my temples. Other times it seemed to be all over. At times it would be stabbing, other times shooting, nagging, throbbing or dull aching. Occasionally it felt like all of these at once. It could either be intermittent or constant. It was excruciating, debilitating and exhausting, and it oftentimes seemed never-ending.
For the first few months, I took strong prescription painkillers to alleviate the pain. In retrospect, I was probably on them for longer than I should have been, but at the time, I didn't understand the nature of chronic pain or the potential side effects of taking strong medication over a long period of time. After a few months, I told my doctor I wanted to stop taking the painkillers as I felt I'd been on them for long enough. However, the pain in my head, neck, shoulder and back was still considerable, so I started researching alternative, natural solutions for pain relief.
A lady from the phoneline of the UK brain injury charity, Headway, suggested I keep a headache diary to see if there were any patterns or triggers. She emailed me a paper version to fill in, and I started to keep track of my headaches. (If you search 'headache diary' under Images on Google, you will find numerous free ones that you can download. I think the one I used was from the National Headache Foundation, which you can download for free here: www.headaches.org/resources/headache-diary-keeping-a-diary-can-help-your-doctor-help-you/).
On the headache diary, I could keep track of the date of each headache, the time it occurred, the intensity on a scale of 1 to 10, preceding symptoms, any triggers, how I was treating it, and a few other criteria. As I started to keep a record of my headaches, I began to wonder about anything that might be contributing to them. For example, I started to notice that they would be worse after driving, shopping at the supermarket, looking at a screen for some time, if I was very busy or if I'd gone to bed late. Other times there didn't seem to be any particular trigger.
Not long after I'd started keeping the headache diary, I heard in an online Facebook group I was in for people with post-concussion syndrome (PCS) that people were having success relieving pain using CBD oil. Initially, I was reluctant to try it, but the more I looked into it and heard from people about how helpful they found it, the more I thought it would be a good idea to see if it would work for me. CBD oil is legal in the UK, although it must not contain any traces of THC (the psychoactive component), and I recommend buying it from a reputable source such as a pharmacy or well-known store. If you do decide to try it, then it's advisable to discuss it first with your doctor. It should not be taken during pregnancy if breastfeeding, or with certain medications. It doesn't work for everybody, so do be cautious and aware of how you feel when taking it, and stop immediately if you have any concerns.
Within a few days of starting to take a small amount of CBD oil, my headaches improved considerably. It was a real turning point for me. I've kept my headache diary, and I can see to this day exactly when things turned around for me. The headaches became less frequent and less intense. I also found that I was able to focus better, I didn't feel so anxious, and I was more alert. Sometimes I took it to help me get to sleep if the pain was bad at night. I started to get my life back bit by bit since I could focus more and achieve more during the day because I wasn't in so much pain. I was able to start to drive again. I took CBD oil on a regular basis for about 3 years. Then I found I gradually needed it less and less. Today I take it only very occasionally.
I used a number of other holistic products to help manage my headaches. One was a small stick containing menthol and other natural ingredients called '4Head' (www.4headaches.co.uk), which I bought from Boots, the chemist. I rubbed it on the part of my head that hurt, and apparently, it works by dilating blood vessels, allowing oxygen to flow better, and by blocking pain signals to the brain. The stick is small enough to carry around in a bag or pocket, which can be helpful if a headache occurs while you're out and about.
Essential oils have also been part of my defence against headaches. It's claimed that essential oils work either by being absorbed into the skin if applied topically or by the molecules entering the nose through inhalation and crossing the blood-brain barrier to affect the limbic system, otherwise known as the 'emotional centre' of the brain. Essential oils known to have calming or anti-inflammatory effects include frankincense, ginger, lavender, peppermint and rosemary. I bought or made my own mini roller ball bottles containing peppermint and rosemary essential oils mixed with a carrier oil such as coconut or grapeseed. I rubbed the oil on my forehead, neck or wrists and not only did it help ease headaches, but it also helped me to focus better. In addition, I bought an electric diffuser and to this day, I still diffuse certain essential oils, including the ones mentioned above, in my home.
On the recommendation of a neuro physiotherapist, who I saw via a neurologist at my local hospital, I followed the advice of vestibular migraine expert, Professor Owen Judd, on his website www.vestibularmigraine.co.uk and I took 400 mg of vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) daily. I found this to be very effective at reducing the frequency of headaches I had. The website also mentions lists of foods and other triggers of vestibular migraines.
I changed my eating habits quite radically in an attempt to incorporate more anti-inflammatory foods into my diet. Here I'll just list a few foods and supplements that are widely considered to have anti-inflammatory effects. I reduced sugar and processed foods to the absolute minimum. I ate a lot of fruit and vegetables, especially apples, bananas, blueberries, cherries and raspberries, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and spinach leaves. I swapped out vegetable oils for coconut oil and olive oil. I increased the amount of oily fish I ate – for example, salmon, sardines, trout and tuna - to about 3 portions a week. I drank plenty of water, and I would often have chamomile, peppermint or ginger tea. I also took a tablespoon a day of Bulletproof Brain Octane Oil, often in my coffee or drizzled on a salad. Every day I took curcumin or turmeric tablets as well as Boswellia and magnesium citrate, which are all considered helpful anti-inflammatory supplements. Sometimes I would take Feverfew (a medicinal herb) tablets. All these supplements seemed to help alleviate my headaches. To find out more about nutrition for concussion healing.
Exercise may, understandably, seem like the last thing you'd want to do if you are experiencing post-concussion headaches. Personally, I generally rest or take it easy if I do have a bad headache. What I do find helpful, though, is doing small amounts of exercise either daily or as frequently as I can, as I believe this helps to prevent or reduce the number of headaches I experience and their intensity. I find sitting down a lot, especially in front of a laptop or other screen, causes my head to strain forward, putting extra pressure on my head and neck muscles, which I'm sure contributes to headaches. So, I try to take regular breaks and to stretch and move my head and neck and shoulders around. I also find driving can exacerbate my symptoms. I try to balance these sedentary types of activity with exercise and movement. Effective, gentle types of exercise I've tried include Pilates, swimming and walking.
In the early days post-accident, I had regular physiotherapy sessions and was given specific gentle neck, head, shoulder and back exercises. Rolling a tennis ball or massage ball on trigger points on the body for a few seconds to a minute, especially around the head, neck and shoulder area, is one way to help relieve a build-up of tension. A physiotherapist or osteopath can design a personal recovery exercise programme for you. There are also helpful YouTube videos or specific online programmes of gentle exercises for recovery after a head or neck injury.
Throughout the early months of recovery (and for some time afterwards), I alternated warm and cold treatments. Initially, I used Deep Heat and Deep Freeze gel and spray or patches around my neck and shoulders. Then my physiotherapist recommended using a wheat heat pack (heated in the microwave) on my head or around my neck. Alternatively, I placed a small ice pack on the sore areas, which also helped. I bought a cooling gel icepack that I could wear around my forehead for about 10 minutes at a time, which was very soothing.
My neuro physiotherapist treated me for BPPV (Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo), which was causing me to feel off balance and dizzy and may have been contributing to my headaches. The treatment involved lying flat on a bed and being tilted backwards and to the side in a particular way by two physiotherapists in order to move tiny crystals in my inner ear that had been dislodged in the accident. I was also given gaze stabilisation exercises and balance exercises to help me with the dizziness. All of these treatments helped me enormously. As my dizziness, vision and balance symptoms improved, so did my headaches, and I began to experience them less and less. So be aware that there can be a cross-over between different symptoms. As individual symptoms are treated and healed, this may have positive knock-on effects on other symptoms.
Learning to manage my stress levels, I believe, has also contributed to a reduction in the frequency and intensity of my headaches. I started incorporating more relaxation time and self-care strategies into my lifestyle. Prior to the accident, I was always racing around and pushing myself, and I took very little time to intentionally look after myself. Taking time out every day to either meditate, listen to calming music, go for a gentle walk or have a lovely bath in Epsom salts has all contributed to me feeling less stressed. Aiming to get a good night's sleep is another important part of my self-care routine. There's an excellent app I used for a while called Curable (www.curable.com), which teaches a mind-body approach to healing headaches and other pain, incorporating journalling, meditating, mindfulness and understanding the neuroscience of chronic pain.
There are many different causes of post-concussion headaches – ranging from muscle tension to neck injury to damage to the brain. Speak to your doctor about any headaches you have, and they may refer you to a neurologist or other specialist(s) to investigate further and provide appropriate treatment. If you do decide to try some of the things I did for yourself, then I hope you will experience pain relief too. Keep your healthcare providers aware of any holistic or alternative remedies you wish to try.
You'll probably find that you have to take a multi-pronged approach to dealing with post-concussion headaches. It will take time to try different things and to experience pain reduction. You will likely have some good days and some not-so-good days but be patient and persistent, and hopefully, you will see consistent improvements.
Nothing in this blog should be taken as providing medical advice or recommendations. Please always consult your doctor for medical advice and before taking any medication or supplement. Any opinions expressed in this article are of the author, not CFG Law Limited.