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The Headache Hunt
An investigative report from Cheeseburger Brown
The Headache Hunt, a free investigative report from Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by the author


Pain is the one truly universal human experience -- across cultures, across continents, across ages. No one is immune.

Charged with uncovering the path to the cure for the headache, I have set out to learn what I can from a diverse sampling of healing techniques. What follows are my findings.

* * *

Epiphany Through Trephiny

Every school kid knows that many prehistoric peoples sought remedy for a broad spectrum of ailments by cutting a hole in the skull of the victim patient, a practice known as trepanation or trephining (from the Greek for hole + head). Some cultural archaeo-anthropologists have speculated that the aim may have been to create a vent by which evil spirits were supposed to exit the body. Why the evil spirits could not be persuaded to use an existing orifice, like a nostril, is left unexplained.

What every school kid does not know is that the practice of trepanation is alive and well in the modern age, with literally dozens of enthusiasts around the world.

To understand the attraction I spoke with a trepanee whom we'll call "Windy" in order to protect her privacy. I met with her at a streetside coffee shop in downtown Toronto, Canada. She chose a corner table and sat against the wall, explaining that she likes to watch the people move around her, drinking in the nuances of their daily behaviour. "The third eye brings incredible clarity," she told me as we took off our coats; "It's hard sometimes not to fall into a trance, washed away in the layers upon layers of details the third eye is constantly bringing into focus."

"Your elbow is in the sugar bowl," I pointed out.

"Oops," she said, and laughed. As a movement modern trepanation traces its roots to the experiments of the controversial Dutch physician, Dr. Bart Huges, whose quest for enlightenment took him through acid trips, strawberry fields and clouds of cannabis before he settled on prehistoric self-surgery as the gateway to higher perception in the 1960s. In Huges' view human civilization will eventually be ruled by a race of super-clairvoyants with holes in their heads, known as Homo Sapiens Correctus. "The key to understanding the gift of the third eye," Windy explained, "is Huges' work on brainbloodvolume."

The theory is simple: Huges believes that the ratio of blood to cerebrospinal fluid in the skull can be permanently adjusted by giving the brain extra room in order to pulsate freely. He describes his "third eye" surgery as mimicking the natural gap found in the unfused skulls of newborn infants.

"Can I see it?" I asked Windy.

"Not really," she said, taking off her hat and leaning forward. "But you can feel it, sort of, here." At her invitation I gently probed the top of her head just behind the hairline, feeling the soft indentation with the tip of my index finger. It felt like a mucus-filled pothole, under a flap of hair and skin. Quite repellant, really.

Windy described to me how her ex-boyfriend had performed the surgery in their bedroom after they had both studied the procedure. She claimed the entire event was painless thanks to local anaesthetic and over-the-counter analgesics taken during the healing process.

"What gave you the idea to trepanate in the first place?" I asked.

"Headaches," she said right away. "Crippling, soul-twisting, life-screwing headaches." She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples as she said this. "I tried everything to stop them, but nothing worked. Eventually I decided that if I couldn't stop the pain, I'd just have to find a way to deal with the pain."

Windy described a series of misadventures as she sought the new spiritual strength she would need to find peace with her pain. She experimented with various schools of meditation, dabbled in several marginal religions, and once participated in a mass-healing rite presided over by a self-styled "pain philosopher" who had been reduced to little more than a torso and head after a series of crippling voluntary amputations.

"Jesus!" I said.

"Yeah," she agreed, "tried him, too. But in the end I was still left suffering, helpless, at the mercy of my migraines. But I'm a very open-minded person. I was willing to try anything. So when I heard about someone getting the third eye I thought, 'Hey, maybe this can help me.'"

"How are the headaches now?" I asked her.

She sipped her tea thoughtfully. "I still get them, sometimes," she admitted. "But it's different now. I'm not as freaked out about the pain as I was before. I know I can handle it. Getting the third eye has helped me find peace, and finding peace has made the pain less important, if you know what I mean." She put down her cup and asked, "Do you know what I mean?"

"I think so," I told her.


Crystalline Chorus

My next appointment took me to midtown, to a bungalow in the Spadina Village owned by one Madame Ecaterina, private spiritual consultant and reader of the Tarot. She opened her front door with a flourish and bade me to follow her through a curtain of beads into her dimly-lit livingroom, the windows draped by intricate Gypsy and Romany tapestries. "Sit down, darling," she said.

When I opened my briefcase she touched my shoulder and implored me not to use my recorder. "The waves, the electromagnetic waves, create disturbances," she claimed. "I do not allow electronic devices to operate in my home for that reason, thank you so much."

I opened my notebook and poised my pen. "Okay?"

After she had served me a cup of chamomile tea and insisted on providing me with an extra pillow for my chair I tried to explain to Madame Ecaterina the thrust of my investigation into headache remedies, but she interrupted me with a hiss and commanded me to sit while she "examined" me.

She walked around my chair once and then sat down across from me, staring fixedly past my head for several quiet moments. I reflected on the character lines that defined her wizening face, describing years of laughter around full cheeks and smiles pulling at the corners of sensual lips. Decades ago, Madame Ecaterina had been a very pretty girl.

"Your aura is beautiful, darling," she said suddenly, startling me. "So very vital. That's a very positive blue. And there's even some scintillating gold there, which I rarely get to see in men. That's lovely."

"Thank you," I said.

"You want to talk about headaches."

"That's right."

"Do you have a headache now?"

"No."

"That's the tea, working there."

"I don't get a lot of headaches, really. But I've been asked to look into the matter on behalf of another gentleman."

"You can ask me anything you want, darling."

So I asked her what she does for clients who come in with headache problems. She described a typical programme which would meet the problem on several simultaneous fronts, including guided meditation sessions exploring past lives ("to untie the knots of spiritual burden," in the words of Madame Ecaterina) and the use of "crystal self-healing" as a kind of daily homework.

When I asked about crystal self-healing, Madame Ecaterina waxed pedantic about how vibrations of differing frequencies comprise the known and unknown universe, and that the lattice structure of crystalline molecular meshes form ideal transmitters for the set of frequencies with which the human soul is harmonious.

...An explanation which shed as much light on the matter as any typical blurb of "technospeak" from an episode of Star Trek.

I said so and she elaborated. "The crystal is able to amplify the energies coming from a body. So, when someone holds a crystal while they focus on forcing the pain away, it enhances their ability to actually feel the progress they are making."

"If only I had a headache, we could try it out," I said, shrugging.

"I could give you a headache," she said slyly, fixing me with her eyes. "But I am only teasing you -- I wouldn't do that to you, darling. I am a healer, and I do no harm ever."

I thanked her for her time and closed my notebook. She welcomed me to stay longer and ask her more, which I did. I ended up paying her $75 for a Tarot reading, and then she sold me some frankincense to burn "for your vitality!" By that time I had become alarmingly late for my next appointment, and begged off Madame Ecaterina's invitation to browse her crystal collection.

After another cup of tea she finally let me go.


Ancient Chinese Secret

"You're late!" cried Dr. Zhang as I rushed into the waiting room of his private herbalist practice in East Chinatown, south of Riverdale. The telephone rang at an alarming volume. Zhang swooped over and grabbed it, then had a brief, terse-sounding exchange in Cantonese. He hung up.

"I really need to use your washroom," I confessed. "I spent my last two appointments drinking tea."

"So, now you'll be even later -- wasting more of my time!" growled Zhang. Then his face broke out into a wide smile. "I'm kidding you! Hello! The washroom in back there, okay?"

While I was relieving myself Zhang knocked on the door and asked me to bring him some of my pee in a little paper cup. I did as I was told.

"Very interesting!" he said, adding a droplet of some substance to my urine sample and watching it turn purple. He cried, "Good news, you're going to live!" and then laughed and clapped me on the back. "Fast response, no waste of jing."

"Dr. Zhang, I'd like to ask you a few questions about headaches."

"Okay sure go, you tell me about your headache. Does it start behind your eye?"

"No, you don't understand. I don't really suffer from bad headaches. I'm just here to learn."

"I see!" he said, winking at me conspiratorially. "Whatever you say, okay. So ask me your questions. Does the headache make one side of your head throb?"

Despite Zhang's refusal to accept and/or understand that I don't have a headache problem he spoke voluminously on the subject of headaches in general and their causes. "It's stress and disharmony, noise and sleeplessness, gulp instead of sip. We live in a culture of shock and awe, to use George Bush's expression, okay?"

"Are you saying we're buffeted by bad vibes?"

"Not bad per se," replied Zhang, "simply chaotic, without order. To survive this onslaught the individual must himself be well rooted, and balanced. So my treatment begins at the source, with the patient's diet."

Our conversation was cut short by the arrival of the doctor's next appointment. He apologized to me for having to end the interview, and I apologized to him for having been so late in the first place. After shaking his hand I squeezed through the suddenly crowded waiting room. As I reached the door Dr. Zhang called after me, "And hey, about your headaches -- try kudzu!"

"Kudzu?"

"It's a root -- you can buy it downstairs, okay?"

"Thanks," I said. He waved with a smile and ushered the next patient into his examination room.


War on the Western Front

The Fox Health Group pain management facility is located in the northern quadrant of the megalopolis beyond a knot of ten-lane freeways. I'm invited into the office of the president, Allan Walton (BA, MA, PhD (Cand.)), who is running behind schedule after becoming stuck in traffic on the way back from consulting on the case of a Niagara-region patient injured in an automobile accident. "Tea?" offers the receptionist.

"No thank you."

When he did at last arrive Mr. Walton shook my hand firmly and asked whether he could get me anything to drink before sitting down behind his desk. He listened to my preamble patiently, and then settled back into his chair as he began numbering off the basic aspects of modern pain management on his short fingers (one of which was shorter than all of them, terminating in a flap of folded-over scar tissue).

"First of all there's the pharmacological response, where we attempt to chemically alter what's going on with the transmission of the pain. Secondly, there's the psychological approach, where we try to teach the patient to change how that pain is actually received by the brain. And thirdly there's learning to live with the pain -- that is, accepting that there's a certain amount of pain there, and learning to minimize the negative impact of that pain."

I asked him how these three approaches found specific expression in his clinic. Walton explained how a programme of psychological counselling coupled with the use of antidepressants worked well for many chronic pain patients, but stressed that both had to be used in concert -- either/or was a losing proposition. "If a patient is looking for a single cure, a magic bullet, they are going to fail in that quest."

He also mentioned biofeedback therapy, in which, for example, a patient with a vascular headache (like a migraine) would use visualization and other meditation techniques to change the flow of blood in their bodies. A sensor attached to their hand would report the slight increase in temperature that indicated positive progress -- progress that may at that point be too subtle to be sensed by the patient directly.

"In essence," Walton explained, "the device reports on the progress -- either visually or with a tone the patient can hear -- letting the patient know when they are on the right track. Basically, it amplifies the patient's ability to feel what's going on in their own body."

Score one point for Madame Ecaterina -- Allan Walton's explanation of biofeedback sure sounded similar to her claims about crystal healing!

Biofeedback is a stepping stone to teaching patients to relax themselves, and Walton told me that modern relaxation techniques have improved to the point where using biofeedback is seldom necessary anymore. "The point is that almost any kind of pain is worse if the patient is under stress."

Walton went on to explain how in some cases, where the power of the mind cannot be harnessed to mitigate the sensation of pain, patients can learn to deal with having the pain in their lives without letting it destroy them emotionally. The pain persists, but the response to that pain changes. His words began to sound eerily like Windy's from earlier in the day.

"What about herbal alternatives?" I asked. "Have you heard of a root called kudzu?"

"The main problem with herbal remedies is that sometimes patients are reluctant to disclose to us that they're taking them. If your doctor is prescribing a regimen of aspirin and your healer is prescribing a regimen of willow bark, you've got to let them know, because they're essentially the same thing. That's a double dose of acetylsalicylic acid. Just because it's called 'alternative' doesn't mean it isn't real medicine, and mixing medicines can be risky."

"What's the bottom line? Is there a cure for the headache?"

Walton chuckled. "Not really, I'm afraid. The thing is, pain is not a reflexive response -- not a simple transmission. Signals go down the spine from the brain, too, changing the way nerves respond. Messages go both ways, modulating the kind of sensation pain triggers. We have no objective measure of pain, because it isn't something that happens in the body really, it's something that happens in the mind. And since every mind is unique, every experience of pain is therefore unique."

"So there is no one cure?"

"Well that's right, but that doesn't mean there's nothing that can be done about headache pain. It just means that the solution, or more importantly the combination of solutions, that will work for each individual patient will be different. Sometimes that solution is as straight-forward as relaxation, and sometimes it involves more major lifestyle changes, or even something as basic as changes in diet."

Score one for Dr. Zhang, too.

"Thank you for your time."


Conclusion

In conclusion, it seems that pain can be tamed in as many ways as there are people, but the basic weapons are medicines to dull the nerves or aid circulation, techniques for minimizing stress and muscular tension as well as conscious control over the body, and finally the inner fortitude to endure what cannot be changed. Whether the medicines come from a pharmacy or a forest, or whether the tools to aid relaxation are crystal or electronic is beside the point: the definition of success is simply whatever works.


Fin.


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