Instead of popping painkillers every time a headache strikes, sufferers can sit in a sauna and let the heat ease the pain, according to new research.
Wellington doctor Giresh Kanji has found that sitting in a sauna regularly can ease the intensity and duration of severe headaches.
About half the population experiences mild tension headaches and about 4 per cent suffer chronic tension-type headaches, which means they get headaches at least 15 days every month.
Kanji said saunas were as effective as painkillers, but the difference was that pills masked the headaches while saunas treated the cause.
Neck pain and psychological stress are the main triggers of headaches. Regular saunas can ease stress-related headaches, as heat can help reduce stress chemicals that build up and become painful, the research shows.
For this reason, people in warmer climates had fewer headaches, Kanji said. Those who exercised were also less likely to have headaches because working out could reduce stress chemicals.
" ...if you look at the incidents of anxiety, depression, headaches and migraines, they are less in the tropical climates ..."
"That's why saunas are adopted in colder countries and people do find them useful.
"The mechanics of their effectiveness have always been explained as getting rid of toxins through the skin, but you're only losing salt and water. What happens inside your body is important."
Kanji created the West headache trial to see what difference saunas made to long-term headache sufferers. The results formed his PhD thesis on chronic pain at Massey University.
About half the 37 participants, who had endured daily headaches for an average of 16 years, were required to have 20-minute saunas, three times a week, for two months.
Overall, the intensity of their headache pain reduced by more than 40 per cent, Kanji said.
On the flip side, saunas could also induce headaches in those who could not cope with heat.
"If you've got stress chemicals but you don't have a headache and do something that releases stress chemicals, it might tip you over the edge where you get a headache. That's why some people get exercise-induced headaches."
Previous studies had found that fibromyalgia - widespread chronic pain in the body - could be dulled by sitting in saunas.
Kanji said his study was the first to look specifically at the effect of saunas on headaches.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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