Over the last 3 years I have endured sinus headaches that can at times be debilitating. At first I thought they were normal headaches, but as they persisted I suspected they were something more. I began to pay attention to the symptoms and I identified them as sinus headaches.
Once I diagnosed the problem I began self-medicating with Sudafed and ibuprofen, but they simply treated the symptoms and I found myself taking them almost daily during my worst bouts. Not wanting to be dependent on drugs, I began searching for a permanent solution to my sinus headaches. In the rest of this post I will discuss my personal experience and the three tools I've found for naturally controlling sinus headaches:
- Eliminating allergens
- Sinus lavage (aka nasal lavage, nasal irrigation)
How can you tell a sinus headache from other headaches?
Most people associate sinus headaches with colds because they typically occur when you are congested from a cold. However, sinus headaches can be caused by any number of allergens and can occur without displaying any other symptoms except for the pain.
The pain I experience, as most people with sinus headaches, is directly behind the eyes. There is a feeling of pressure and if you put the palms of your hands on your closed eyes and push slightly it will not be comfortable. Conversely, if you take your thumbs and press up on the top of your eye socket, you will feel relief. Sometimes my sinus headaches are accompanied by stuffy ears due to the Eustachian tubes not draining properly, but typically I have no other noticeable symptoms.
What causes sinus headaches and sinus pain?
As I noted before, you can get sinus headaches and pain from having a cold or flu, but the purpose of this article is to address chronic sinus headaches and pain. Chronic sinus headaches usually are typically caused by allergies. Common allergens are mold, dust, pollen, and food.
The direct reason for sinus headaches and pain is the actual inflammation and swelling of the tissue in your sinus cavities which can be caused by allergic reactions. This inflammation and swelling does not allow your sinus to function and drain properly, thus leading to congestion and pain.
In my particular case, the source of the allergies was two-fold, pollen and mold. Now the kicker here is that the mold allergy was not airbone, it was food ingested, which took me quite a while to figure out.
Food allergies cause sinus headaches?!
By mid 2008 my headaches got so bad that I decided I had to take action and figure out what was going on. I called a friend of mine who is a chiropractor and practices natural medicine. As an aside, he's not a quack :), but actually a very analytical (previously an electrical engineer) and competent individual. He suggested that the headaches could be caused by a food allergy because it was common for sinus headaches to manifest by themselves with no other symptoms when caused by a food allergy.
I did some research on the web on my own and found other sources stating that food allergies alone could cause sinus headaches, often without other symptoms. My friend ordered my a blood test to test for food allergies.
In the weeks that I waited for the results I determined the culprit. I had racked my brain for what I had changed in my diet over the previous couple of years. There was really only one item I could think of: Kashi products. I quit eating Kashi products and almost immediately the majority of the headaches went away, it was pretty amazing. I still suffered from the occasional headache and I'll discuss how I overcame those in a moment.
When the test results came back, I only had one severe food allergy, aspergillus. Asper-what? That's what I said. Aspergillus is a common mold that is found in the air and is responsible for many airborne mold allergies, however it is also commonly found on grains and thus ingested by you and me. Kashi touts there 7-grain blend and it is in everything they make, so I could only infer that Kashi products must have a high amount of Aspergillus in them. I thought this might be psycho-somatic, but I have since ingested two Kashi products without thinking (a bar and waffles) and both times I got sinus headaches. It was only in retrospect that I realized the products were Kashi brand.
Sinus lavage and how it can prevent sinus headaches
I still struggled with regular sinus headaches caused by airborne allergens such as pollen. Since my only symptoms are headaches and stuffy ears, I choose not to use any allergy medicine such as Zyrtec, although I have in the past and it does work. The reason I choose not to is because antihistamines dry you out and and only treat the symptoms. I also hate the idea of taking medicine for the rest of my life if I don't have to.
It was at this point I discovered sinus lavage, which is fancy talk for squirting water up your nose. I was talking to my sister about the headaches and she told me that her ear-nose-throat doctor had told her to do sinus lavage. Sinus lavage is the act of taking a big plastic syringe and squirting saline solution up your nose so that it runs through your sinus cavities. Sound fun? It's really not that bad. I used to fantasize about drilling holes in my sinuses when my headaches were at their worst, so squirting salt water up my nose seems reasonable!
I began researching and found that sinus lavage can help prevent sinus headaches, but you have to make sure you use it when you are first exposed to the allergens. The problem is you don't necessarily know when you are exposed (unless it's really obvious, such as mowing the lawn). However, in my experience I've found that doing it anytime you begin to suspect that a headache is on the way is enough to stave off the headaches. Even if you have a headache, sinus lavage definitely helps speed recovery time to just 3-4 hours (as good as Sudafed).
I researched nasal irrigation kits and found Nasaline to be the most recommended. I found it on Amazon (Nasaline Nasal Irrigator) and it has excellent reviews. I've been very happy it and it has almost eradicated the last of my sinus pain.
A few tips on using the nasal irrigator:
- Use distilled water. You really don't want any impurities in your sinus cavity
- Warm the water a bit above room temperature (not too much, just so it's comfy)
- Get the air out of the syringe! (not fun if it's there)
Exercise helps too
When my headaches were at their worst aerobic exercise would definitely help limit the length and severity of my sinus headaches. Doing 20-30 minutes of exercise a day should help and also has a ton of other beneficial effects as well.
I'm happy to be sinus headache free. For awhile it was starting to impact my work and taking Sudafed all the time was making me jittery and wired, which I didn't care for at all. I hope this post can help someone else overcome their sinus pain!