The discovery means that headaches could be prevented or alleviated using supplements such as beta carotene and vitamin C, which bind and shut down free radicals. Picture: Boxer Ngwenya

Headaches have become an ordinary occurrence for students around exam times and many of them feel helpless when dealing with this problem. Students are so overwhelmed by the pressure of assignments and exams that they completely forget about the effects this is having on their health.

Dr Elliot Shevel, chairman of the South African division of the International Headache Society, has the following advice:

* Be aware of your posture when studying as this can result in a tension headache. Use a good chair that supports your back and that gives the ideal posture. Visit to get a free copy of the ideal computer posture. Learn the right stretching exercises to stretch the muscles of your head, face, neck and jaw. Stretching should be gentle and soothing, not agonisingly painful. Stretch your neck and jaw muscles carefully and you will get results.

* Find out what triggers your headaches by keeping a diary. Each time you suffer from a headache, make a note about the warning signs, triggers and severity. If you can discover some of your personal triggers, you may be able to avoid future headaches. This diary will assist with diagnosing conditions such as medication overuse headache and help you make a decision to go for no-drug methods of treatment.

* Dietary migraine is a common affliction. These are usually triggered by foods that assist with energy such as chocolate. Chocolate raises the blood sugar level quickly and then allows it to drop quickly again. Low GI (glycaemic index) foods give a more even blood sugar level. Use the nutritional facts label to help choose healthy foods when shopping. Compare nutrient levels for similar foods. Common culprits include MSG, red wine, cheese, soy sauce and processed meats. Remember, skipping meals is a surefire trigger for migraines as well. Eat in moderation.

* Beware of medication overuse headache (MOH). Medication is only appropriate for someone who suffers a few times a month. According to the International Headache Society, if you are taking medication more than twice a week, you are at risk of developing MOH. This means that the drugs you are taking will cause the migraine to become more severe and more frequent over time. This leads to a downward spiral into constant medication overuse and constant pain. The more medication you take, the more pain you are in, and the cycle continues.

* It is important that you keep your stress levels to a minimum. Plan ahead to guarantee that you have enough time to study and that you get sufficient rest each night. Take regular breaks.

* Dehydration is a common trigger, so maintain an adequate intake of fluid throughout the day to prevent headaches. The human brain is more than 75 percent water and it is very sensitive to the amount of water available to it. When the brain detects that the water supply is too low, it begins to produce histamines. This is essentially a process of water rationing and conservation to safeguard the brain in case the water shortage continues for a long period of time.

The histamines directly cause pain and fatigue, and the low energy that usually accompanies it. It is best to drink plain water, as many carbonated soft drinks contain substances that can also trigger headaches. Substances that headache sufferers should avoid include common ingredients in soft drinks, such as caffeine.

* A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine tested 32 women with tension-type headache. The investigators studied self-report data on headache triggers, pain interference with sleep and self-management strategies for pain. Eighty-one percent reported that going to sleep was the most frequently used self-management strategy, and this group also rated going to sleep as the most effective. Aim to sleep seven or eight hours a night.

* If your headaches persist, you must get to the root of the problem. The longer the headache persists, the more damage will be done to the underlying structures.

A “multidisciplinary” assessment will need to be done. There are so many different structures in the head, face and neck, all of which can be involved in the migraine process, that no single specialist can have all the knowledge necessary to make a comprehensive diagnosis.

“Which structures are causing the pain… is the million dollar question,” adds Shevel. - The Mercury