New ways to treat headaches

A new approach to the treatment of headaches
New approaches to the treatment of headaches

A new approach to the treatment of headaches which looks at coping with their triggers is the focus of new research at Griffith University.

Headache disorders are among the most common disorders of the nervous system, causing substantial disability in populations throughout the world.

It has been estimated that globally, the percentage of the adult population with an active headache disorder are 46% for headache in general, 11% for migraine, 42% for tension-type headache and 3% for chronic daily headache.

While the results of Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy (CBT) have so far provided promising results for the common headache and migraine, it has not resulted in clinical improvement for all cases, says research leader Professor Paul Martin from Griffith Health Institute’s Behaviourial Basis of Health program.

Learning to cope with the triggers

Professor Martin has developed an approach designed to enable people to cope with the triggers of their headaches called Learning to Cope with Triggers (LCT).

“Our previous research has shown that it is not possible to completely avoid all potential headache triggers as they are so diverse and attempting to do so, could result in a restricted lifestyle. Also, attempts to avoid triggers – which could include food, noise, tiredness, stress etc – will result in no exposure to them or short exposure. This may lead to the capacity of the trigger to precipitate headaches being maintained or increased through a process of sensitisation or lack of opportunity for learning to cope with the trigger.”

With the aid of a $500,000 National Health and Medical Research Council grant, the Griffith team will show how a combination of CBT and LCT will help headache sufferers to become
desensitised to triggers or build up a tolerance to them. This combination therapy will entail sufferers being asked to imagine themselves in stressful situations.

“For example, with someone whose headaches are triggered by stress we could help them to imagine themselves in stressful situations, the exposure of which would be very gradually and carefully increased. We would then help the person to manage this stressful situation using various coping strategies such as relaxation skills or learning how to recognise any negative thought processes associated with headache onset.”

Working over four-years, Professor Martin and his team will see participants – aged between 18 and 65 and who have been suffering a headache diagnosis for at least a year – on a weekly 60 minute basis for a 12-week period.

“I expect a treatment that combines CBT with LCT to be extremely effective in headache management,” he says. “We have previously found standard CBT to be about 68% effective on its
own, so when it’s combined with LCT we could be looking at somewhere in the region of 80-90% effectiveness.”