Headaches: It's not all in your head

Patients are often surprised to find out that their headache can be stemming from their neck. After a quick discussion to rule out anything more ominous, I often times will have my patients lay on their backs and I’ll bring my hands to a specific spot in the back of their necks. A light pressure there and the most common response is amazement: “Wow! How’d you know!? That’s it. That just produced the exact headache that I get all the time!”

We recently had a patient in the office who had been experiencing a consistent 7 out of 10 headache for years. After seeing many other doctors, a friend mentioned finding a chiropractor. She decided to give Crux a try. Six days after her first treatment she returned elated, stating that she had an entire day without a headache for the first time in years! Since then the headache had been limited to a 2 out of 10. It only took a couple more visits to completely resolve a pain that she thought she’d have to live with forever.

Headaches affect almost half of the population. Fifteen to twenty percent of all headaches arise from problems in the neck and are classified as “cervicogenic headache.” The most common trigger for cervicogenic headache is limited movement of the joints in your upper cervical spine. Normally, each of the joints in your neck move freely and independently. Sometimes, restrictions in the upper cervical spine initiate a painful cycle of stiffness, muscle tightness and joint inflammation. This may cause irritation to the sensitive nerves leading from your neck into the back of your head.

Cervicogenic headaches are most commonly one-sided, but occasionally may be present on both sides of the head. Pain often radiates from the base of your skull toward the top of your head and sometimes over your eyes. These headache episodes may last from hours to days…or in the case of the example above, they may last years. The pain is continuous but fluctuating and is often described as “deep.” You may also notice chronic neck tenderness and stiffness.

Cervicogenic headache symptoms may be triggered or reproduced by awkward movements and postures. The condition is more common in patients who have recently experienced trauma, especially a motor vehicle accident or an earlier concussion. The condition often affects middle-aged adults and is more common in women at a rate of four to one. Cervicogenic headaches are sometimes accompanied by poor posture, including a “slouched” or “forward head” posture.

Red Flags: Be sure to tell us if you notice your headaches are becoming progressively worse over time, if you experience sudden onset of a severe headache, a new or unfamiliar headache, or if you notice significant neck stiffness, rash, numbness or tingling on your face, light-headedness, dizziness, loss of consciousness, difficulty speaking, difficulty swallowing, difficulty walking, nausea, numbness radiating into your arms or legs, or fever. 

Being dehydrated can aggravate or cervicogenic headaches. Make sure that you are drinking 6-8 glasses of water each day, more in hot weather or when you’ve been sweating. Since cervicogenic headaches result from a mechanical problem, medicines are often ineffective. Fortunately, our office has several tools to help solve this problem.

Because the cervicogenic headache is multi-factorial (joint stiffness, muscle spasm, nerve compression, muscle imbalance, and posture-related) it often takes a multi-faceted approach to relieve the condition. The chiropractic adjustment and the Active Release Technique can alleviate symptoms, but in order to prevent the problem from coming back, we often need to add specific postural exercises. We also often discuss sleeping position and head position throughout the day as these can either make or break your long-term success.

In the second half of the video below, you’ll see me demonstrate Active Release to resolve head pain.

Please share with anyone you know of that deals with headaches.

Be sure to schedule an appointment if you think we can help you with yours.