Headache Management

The Impact of Headache

Headache is a major health issue. Just migraine alone affects 10% of our population and is the second leading cause of disability globally, the most common cause of disability in young women. Unfortunately treating headaches is challenging and the current traditional system of treating headaches often leaves patients unsupported. 

The Status Quo

Most people think that the best way to free oneself from the clutches of chronic headache is to find the “right” medication or combination of medications for it. While medications may have a role in getting you to your preferred future, this approach is riddled with challenges:
  • Finding a knowledgeable provider to which you can be referred can take up to a year or longer.
  • Often there is a trial-and-error approach that is cumbersome.
  • A 2-6 month trial of a medication is required before it is known whether it is effective
  • The majority of patients experience side effects to these medications
  • A successful treatment is considered to be 50% reduction of your headaches or better for 6 to 12 months
  • Most patients relapse after stopping medications
As Emile Chartier Alain has been so often quoted: “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.”.

Getting you from Point A to Point B with a Functional Model

While medications may have a role in getting you to your preferred future, treating chronic headache functionally is a very powerful approach. That is, while medications may have a role in getting you to your preferred future, treating chronic headache functionally is a very powerful approach. To contrast the previous quote, the following quote by Eckhart Tolle captures the essence of a functional model: “Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answer to come to you. A functional model implies that it works to get you where you want, without knowing for certain exactly how it works. This is not foreign to us: Most of us drive every day without knowing how a car works. So, in this model, we are concerning ourselves with getting you to function the way you would like to function. That is, we are less concerned with questions like:

  • Why do I have this headache?
  • What is going on?
  • What kind of headache(s) do I have?

(Surprised?) and more concerned with questions like:

  • Yesterday morning, why did you get a headache rather than the day before?
  • Why are they lingering now for you, and not for others? Or…
  • Why are they lingering now, and not at another time in your life?

To get started, you need to be able to observe your headaches with the right perspective. In the wise words of Rasheed Ogunlaru, “How you look at it is pretty much how you’ll see it.” So, to observe your headaches is to observe all the relationships headaches have related factors in your life. You have to have the right tools and procedures in place to get the data you need and to make it work for you.

Well, Don't Certain Types of Headaches Need Certain Kinds of Treatment?

Certain medications have evidence in certain conditions. Interestingly, most prophylactic medications for migraine were originally intended for other conditions:
  • antidepressants
  • anti-hypertensives
  • anti-convulsants
  • anti-inflammatories, etc.
However, the neurophysiological evidence that the mechanisms between different types headaches are really different is a bit limited. And the evidence that they respond differently to behavioral treatment is limited.  Moreover, for certain types of headaches – like Post-traumatic headache (PTH) –  there is no evidence that medication are even useful.

So Why Does a Functional Model Work in Headache Management?

Because headache is an experience. And an experience is best summarized by way your brain lights up while your experiencing something. For headaches, a network of brain structures known as the pain matrix lights up. This experience is your reality; it’s the way you feel the headache.  It’s more reliable and accurate than a diagnostic checklist or a biochemical explanation of headache. The parts of the brain that sit on this pain matrix are parts that process many aspects of the pain experience:


  • i.e., Primary Sensory Cortex, Posterior Insula
  • Processes signals coming from nerve endings in your body
  • This is what many erroneously refer to as “physical pain”…But to only consider this part of the pain experience would be analogous to only acknowledging one instrument in a symphony.


  • i.e., Anterior Cingulate Cortex, Anterior Insula, Amygdala)
  • Processes the feeling of being in pain, fear of pain, wanting to avoid pain, etc.


  • i.e., Prefrontal Cortex, Hippocampus
  • Processes how much attention you pay to pain, expectations of your condition, past memories of this pain, etc.


  • i.e., Middle Cingulate, Temporal Cortex, Pulvinar
  • Coordinates and processes communication between parts of this pain matrix
  • This is kind of like muscle memory, except, nobody wants to get good at having headaches.

Some people are great at describing an experience so that everyone has a (sort of) better understanding and they become known as poets. But for most of us, we will have to accept that most will not be able to experience our headache the way we feel it. However, if we can change the way these structures in our brain’s fire, then we will have changed the pain experience. A functional model concerns itself with discovering how we get the brain to fire more favourably that also sees headaches fall by the wayside. This is done by discovering and implementing upgrades in the way we act in life and react to headaches cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally that “un-trains” headaches at this most fundamental level. Many of us have the skills required already, we just need to direction on how to make it work for us. Others will learn new skills in making this happen.

Can I Manage my Headache Functionally While Taking Medication?

Yes! Both treatments can be combined. Studies generally show that a combination of medication and behavioural & lifestyle interventions work synergistically in getting better results. The way we look it, medication is just one play in the playbook of plays you will develop in the functional model. However, patients often give medication all the credit for any improvement when in fact a lot of other things they do actually made the biggest difference; sometimes it’s these other things that actually make the medication effective!

Who is a Good Candidate for Managing Their Headaches Functionally?

This is best suited for those with chronic headache (have headaches more often than not) who are willing to do what it takes to improve their lives. This is also a good option for those taking medication as it will generally improve their treatment further. This is an especially good option for those who can’t take medication or prefer not to.

Proposed Training Sequence

Functional Management of Chronic Headache
Functional Management of Chronic Headache

Tools and methods for training wellness

Progressive Muscle Relaxation</br></br>
Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Skills in relaxing your nervous system

Headache Behavioural Therapy</br></br>
Headache Behavioural Therapy

Leveraging your behaviours to see headaches fall by the wayside


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Headaches

Headache Management Services Offered in

Group Counselling
Group Counselling

OHIP-Funded, Evidence-based programs, virtually

Medical Assessment
Medical Assessment

OHIP-funded assessments for behavioural interventions

Occupational Therapy
Occupational Therapy

Reintegrating into one's work, life, and community


Getting your mind in line with what you want