Chantal Oliver, experienced searing tension and scalp artery headaches. Picture supplied
Chantal Oliver, experienced searing tension and scalp artery headaches. Picture supplied
Chantal Oliver and Dr Elliot Shevel share an embrace: Picture supplied
Chantal Oliver and Dr Elliot Shevel share an embrace: Picture supplied

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The symptoms started suddenly and rapidly – but first came the nausea.

Then, Chantel Oliver (Crt) couldn't lift her head up from the searing pain.

"I remember it was February and I was down for a whole week... I had never experienced anything like it before. I was on every kind of pain tablet, nothing helped," the 36 year-old said.

That was six years ago – when Oliver began her arduous journey with severe headaches caused by muscle tension and her scalp arteries.

"I had initially thought my blood pressure may have gone up, because I was hypertensive. But, when I went to the doctor, he found that it was normal. The doctor said the headache could be stress related – but I wasn't really under stress at that time", she continued.

Renowned South African maxillo-facial and oral surgeon, Dr Elliot Shevel (crt), explained that headaches were an "exceedingly common problem" with a serious impact on overall health status, quality of life, and disability.

"Tension headache is the most common, affecting up to 40% of the population. Migraine is the second most common type, with about 12% of the population being affected. The third important type is Cluster Headache, which is present in up to 1% of the population", he said.

While the cluster headache was far less common than migraine or tension headache, Shevel said it was important because it is by far the most painful – it is so painful that it is also known as “Suicide Headache”.

"The main difference between the different types of headache is the severity of the pain, with a migraine being more painful than the tension headache and cluster being more painful than migraine," Shevel continued.

A pain Oliver said she knew all too well and which, up until two years ago – was a constant in her life.

"People don't understand... they think you can just pop a pill and it will go away, but it doesn't. At the height of my ordeal, I became very withdrawn. I didn't feel like communicating with anyone, I just wanted to be in a quiet room with the lights off", she said.

The headache pain Oliver experienced got to a point where she feared she'd lose her job from all the sick leave she had taken.

In 2013 she moved from Cape Town to Joburg and coincidentally started working as a nurse at the Headache Clinic, where she met Shevel.

She initially was treated with a plastic plate worn in the palate – which causes the jaw and neck muscles to relax – for a year and a half.

And while her headaches didn't completely disappear, they reduced in severity.

Two years ago, however, she had a procedure done to close the painful arteries in her scalp.

Shevel said, "The most important thing for people to know is that in none of these (headache types) does the pain come from the brain. Although it often feels as though it is coming from the brain, in 99% of headache sufferers the pain comes from the muscles of the jaws and neck and from blood vessels in the scalp just under the skin."

He added that the secret of The Headache Clinic’s successful headache treatment lay in being able to accurately diagnose where the pain was coming from.

"We are then able to treat the source of the pain. If it is muscle pain then we have to diagnose which muscles are responsible – and the same is true of arterial pain."

Headaches are usually also treated with drugs, either over-the-counter or prescription. The biggest problem with headache drugs, Shevel explained, was that apart from the side-effects, many headache sufferers developed what was called “medication overuse headache”.

He stated: "This is when the medications, although they may help the pain in the short term, in the long term cause the attacks to become more and more frequent and more and more painful, causing the patient to take more and more drugs. About half the patients coming to The Headache Clinic for help are already suffering from medication overuse headache."

Oliver advised that if one experienced blurred vision, daily nausea and constant headache – to seek professional help.