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Photo: ajc.com
Photo: ajc.com

How nurses can keep headaches down to a dull roar

Ever wish you'd bought stock in an OTC migraine medicine company before beginning work as a nurse? Nurses are definitely known for buying Excedrin extra-strength in bulk. And while headaches aren't exclusive to nurses' odd hours, stress and dietary choices, they do tend to go hand in hand with the nursing field.

Yes, those throbbing temples and what the Emory neurology newsletter described as migraines "like an ice pick to the brain" may come with the territory. But you can also take steps to prevent and quickly reduce or eliminate on-the-nursing-job headaches.

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Here's what your stressed-out peers and other medical experts recommend:

Pick up on what headaches might be telling you. Nurses have so much stress, and the go-to explanation for headaches is usually stress-related. Still, headaches may indicate another underlying issue, according to Atlanta-based Headache Center of Peachtree Neurological Clinic. Some of the options include "tumors, hemorrhage, vascular abnormalities such as aneurysms, ocular disorders, inflammatory processes like temporal arteritis or other disorders. This is where a thorough neurological exam is most important," the center explained.

Know your headache meds. When a headache begins, these meds might make a difference, according to the PNC: triptans, ergotamines, steroids, NSAIDs and OTC preparations. But if you've once been advised to take one of those medications for headaches, don't necessarily turn to them automatically for a subsequent bout. You can also talk to your medical professional about medications to take ahead of time, recommended PNC. These may be prescribed to be "taken to reduce the frequency and severity of attacks: antidepressants, beta-blockers, antiepileptics and recently approved Botox," the center added.

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Modify your behavior. You've probably been around the medical scene long enough to know that plenty of ailments are caused by patient behavior, and headaches are no exception. Just a few of the lifestyle adjustments that might reduce headaches include daily exercise and eating three meals per day.

Get more sleep. It may seem like "sleep" has become the panacea for the modern age, but it really can prevent headaches, according to the Peachtree Headache Center. You're probably thinking "as if," but it's also worthwhile to note that too much sleep can also trigger a headache.

Opt for treatment that doesn't involve drugs. Just like the rest of the population, nurses have good cause to avoid taking drugs for headaches. While most pregnant women can safely take acetaminophen for an occasional headache, according to the Mayo Clinic, other pain relievers are to be avoided. Some people with substance abuse disorder also may need to avoid taking medications. 

In those instances, herbal remedies might offer some relief, according to registered nurse and clinical nurse specialist Brenda Baker. She sees lots of nursing student related headaches as an assistant professor at Emory University's Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing; she also knows the drawbacks of prescribing medication for those with substance abuse disorder through her work with incarcerated women as research and program director for Motherhood Beyond Bars. "A lot of nurses are using aromatherapy to manage headaches," she noted. "Aromatherapy includes essential oils applied to temples and wrists and diffusers. I also see a lot more use of massage and herbal teas than in the past when nurses turned to caffeine."

» RELATED: The 5 most common signs of nursing burnout

When prescription or OTC medicines are not a good choice, you may also want to consider biofeedback, according to Mayo. "With this mind-body technique, you learn to control certain bodily functions — such as muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure — to prevent headaches or reduce headache pain," it said. "If you'd like to try biofeedback to treat headaches during pregnancy, ask your health care provider for a referral to a biofeedback therapist."

Consider holistic solutions. Katy, Texas-based Bachelor's Degree of Science and Nursing and RN Jennifer Marcenelle is a holistic nurse who says 30 years in the medical field have made her familiar with the nurse-grade headache. "Headaches often occur when our mental energies are unable to flow naturally down through our body to our feet to be released," noted Marcenelle, a certified gemstone and diamond therapy practitioner who founded and owns Burn Bright Today. "One thing that helped me when I had headaches from working those long nursing shifts was gemstone therapy. I wore a combination necklace of agate/citrine, which is believed to help ground and release mental energy."

Even if holistic solutions aren't your thing, Marcenelle urged nurses to acknowledge the stressful demands of the job before headaches expand into something more serious. "We are routinely exposed to difficult and traumatic situations," she said. "Over time, negative experiences can become cumulative, overpowering our coping mechanisms. It's not shocking that nurses are highly susceptible to mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. And if this fatigue doesn't go away with proper rest and attention, it can easily transform into burnout."

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