Chronic headaches are sometimes symptoms of larger, more serious issues, such as brain tumors. But most of the time, they’re not.

Despite the mostly benign causes of headaches, doctors generally order too many brain scans such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized tomography (CT), according to a study by the University of Michigan Medical School (UM). 1 in 8 patients receive scans even though national guidelines discourage doctors from scanning patients who report headaches or migraines.

Doctors too quick to scan headache sufferers’ brains cost the health care system $1 billion annually. 

A reason for the over-scanning could be the inability of traditional medicine to provide headache relief. “The focus should be on getting effective relief when you have a headache,” says Dr. Egilius Spierings, a neurologist at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard-affiliated facility. People who are treated appropriately find their headaches eased, which would eliminate the need for scanning, he adds.

Doctors likely order scans to appease patients’ fears about serious ailments including cancer or aneurysm, or possibly to protect themselves against malpractice lawsuits. However, just 1% to 3% of scans reveal more serious issues, according to the study.

Holistic Remedies for Headaches“There’s solid research showing that the number of times you find serious issues on these scans in headache patients is about the same as that for a randomly chosen group of non-headache patients,” says Dr. Brian Callaghan, a UM neurologist. Additional research is underway to clarify which patients are good candidates for further testing.

Beyond the financial burden of the scans, CT scans also come with high doses of radiation that could cause health problems later on. 1 CT scan bombards the body with a year’s worth of normal environmental radiation, according to Scientific American. MRIs, meanwhile, often identify issues that ultimately aren’t dangerous. This results in additional testing, exacerbating increased costs.

Unfortunately, many of the front-line painkillers frequently aren’t effective for headaches. Overuse of painkillers may even worsen migraine pain or lead to transformed migraines, which can involve daily attacks.

Holistic remedies ranging from stress-management to supplements may help alleviate headache and migraine pain. About half of U.S. adults who suffer from head pain have used alternative medicine in the last 12 months, according to a literature review published in the journal Headache. Acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, and homeopathic medicine ranked as the most common modalities used.

Meditation and yoga are other common methods of managing headaches. Up to 93% of patients tried alternative therapy after visiting their general practitioner, according to the review, suggesting that these patients are trying to find relief after traditional medicine failed to increase their quality of life.

About 60% of people surveyed in a study done by UK researchers found alternative medicine improved their symptoms.

Have you tried holistic therapy for migraines or headaches? 

Image by liz west via Flickr


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