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Ten Tips For Overcoming your Headaches

One of our most revered faculty members, Lee Archer, MD, a neurologist, provided a copy of the handout he gives to his headache patients. With his permission, I adapted it for use with my own patients. I thought it was so good that I asked him if I could publish it on my blog so that others could benefit from his advice.

Headaches are incredibly common and usually frustrating for providers. It has become increasingly evident that chronic or frequently occurring headaches are often virtually impossible to identify as either “migraine” or “tension” headaches and often simply are called “chronic headaches”. Treatment often becomes a revolving door of trying new medications that sometimes work, but more commonly don’t. And, even worse, many headache patients gradually simply become dependent on addictive pain medications just to try to cope with their often daily discomfort.

But, there are some really basic things about dealing with chronic headaches that we should never forget to try. So, without further ado, here is his advice:

Ten Steps to Overcoming Your Headaches

There are some things that everyone can do to help their headaches. There are a number of things you can besides just take medication to help their headaches. If someone follows all of these directions, the need for prescription medication is often dramatically reduced if not eliminated.

1. First and foremost, taking pain medication everyday is definitely not a good idea. Daily pain medication tends to perpetuate headaches. This is true for over-the-counter medications like Excedrin and BC powders, as well as prescription medications like Fiorinal, Midrin, and “triptans” like Imitrex, Zomig, Relpax, Frova, etc. Exactly why this occurs is unclear, but it is a well established clinical finding. Anyone who takes pain medications more than twice a week is in danger of perpetuating their headaches. Occasional usage of pain medications several times in one week is permissible, as long as it is not a regular pattern. For instance, using pain medication several days in a row during the perimenstrual period is certainly permissible.

2. Regular exercise helps reduce headaches. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins in the brain. These are chemicals that actually suppress pain. I encourage people to aim for at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise (like walking or swimming) five days a week if not daily. In addition to helping reduce headaches, this also will prolong your life because of the beneficial effects on your heart.

3. Stress reduction is a definite benefit in reducing headache frequency and severity. Headaches are not caused by stress alone, but can make most headaches worse. There are no easy answers for how to reduce stress. If it is severe, we can consider referral to a therapist for help.

4. Too much or too little sleep can trigger headaches. Pay attention to this, and note whether or not you are tending to trigger headaches from sleeping too little or too much. People differ as to how much sleep is “right” for them.

5. Caffeine can precipitate headaches. I encourage patients to try stopping caffeine altogether for a few weeks, and we can decide together whether or not caffeine might be contributing. Abruptly stopping all caffeine can trigger headaches, too, so try to taper off over a week.

6. NutraSweet (aspartame) can cause headaches in some people. If you are drinking multiple servings/day of beverages containing NutraSweet you might consider trying to stop that, and see if your headaches respond.

7. There are some other foods they may trigger headaches in some people. Usually people learn this very quickly. For instance, red wine will precipitate migraines in many people, and chocolate, nuts, hot dogs and Chinese food triggers headaches in certain cases. I generally don’t advise omitting all of these foods, unless you notice a pattern where these foods are causing headaches.

8. If I give you a prophylactic medication for headaches, you should take it daily, as prescribed. If you have trouble tolerating it, please let me know and we can consider using something else. No prophylactic medication works in every patient with headaches. Generally, each of the medications works in only about 60% of people. Therefore, it is not uncommon to need to try more than one medication in any given patient. We must give any of these medications at least four to six weeks to work before giving up on them. It generally takes that long to be sure whether or not a medication is going to work.

9. Keep a calendar of your headaches. Use a standard calendar and mark the days
that you have a headache, how severe it is on a scale of one to ten, what you took
for it and how long it lasted. Also note anything that you think could have
precipitated it. By keeping this over time we can tell if our efforts
are helping.

10. Riboflavin (vitamin B2) 400mg daily helps prevent migraines in many people. It
comes in 100mg size tablets, so you will need to take four of them each day. You
can add it to anything else we try. You do not need a prescription for it.

Do you have chronic headaches? If so, I challenge you to apply these ten principles, then come back and provide a comment on this blog post!

Thanks and good luck!

*This blog post was originally published at eDocAmerica*


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Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

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