I love treating headaches because they often respond so well to treatment. I firmly believe Chiropractic should be tried as one of the first treatment options, provided there are no headache ‘red-flags’ which can be ruled out in the history and examination. Some of my best results are with clients who’ve had headaches, sometimes for many years, which settle even within a few treatments. Chiropractic should not be seen as a guarantee of these results, but it is often very helpful.
Chiropractic is an excellent treatment for many types of headaches as tension at the base of the skull, neck and spine are common contributory factors. Releasing the muscles in the neck and base of the spine is a skill and practice that I enjoy. I find a mixture of Chiropractic and releasing tension techniques very effective and headaches can often settle very quickly.
Headaches are common, almost everyone having had one at some stage! They affect 9 out of 10 of us, over 10 million people in the UK. Repetitive or constant headaches can seriously affect your life, from either a mild ache or pressure that just leaves you feeling under the weather or less able to concentrate at work to being forced to stop, take time off, lie down and rest.
Chiropractic treatment includes manipulation or adjustments to the neck and upper back (cervical and thoracic spines), pressure-point and deep massage to release the muscles, particularly at the base of the skull in the suboccipital muscles, where the tension and tightness can often refer pain to the crown of the head, the frontal bones or the back of the eye. Often clients can say when pressure is applied to the tender muscles at the base of the skull (called the suboccipital region) ‘that’s the exact type of headache pain I get’. This pain referral can be called a ‘doorbell sign’ and once the tension in these tight muscles release, the headaches settle.
Lifestyle changes to reduce the bad habit patterns of tension and stress can also be key to helping headaches. Changes to desk and work activities, ergonomics, sleeping positions, pillows and exercise can be important to prevent the build-up of tension, help the releasing effects of the treatment remain more permanent, and prevent recurrence of headaches.
The Alexander Technique focuses on releasing postural and habitual muscular tension that are subconsciously held tight and together with Chiropractic, I feel this is an excellent combination of treatments for headaches. Sometimes joint adjustments are used, possibly with deep muscle tendon release, whilst other times it’s a gentler guiding release or lightly holding the tender spots that works best. (Read my ways to release muscle tension for more information).
When treating headaches it is helpful to recognise the possible cause to indicate the best approach to treatment.
Most Headaches (about 90% ) can be classified as Primary Headaches, that aren’t due to another underlying health problem.
There are many types and classifications of primary headaches, commonly:
These are the most common, ‘normal’ everyday headaches. They feel like a dull ache with constant pressure around the front, top and sides of the head as if a rubber band has been stretched around it. They are commonly related to tightness in the neck and are well treated with Chiropractic treatment. See here for full article on Tension Headaches
Cervicogenic or ‘Neck-Related’ Headaches
Headaches arising from the neck are very common and Chiropractic is an excellent treatment option. Cervicogenic means ‘of neck origin’. Tightness or spasm in the neck can refer pain into the head, forehead, over the eyes or temples.
The headaches are often aggravated by certain postures or neck movements. A vice like feeling around the head can be reported and the headache may ease when avoiding stressful neck positions or when lying down, as the neck muscles can relax with head supported. See here for full article on Neck-related or cervicogenic Headaches
Migraines affect about 1 in 6 people in the UK. They are severe headaches, with other symptoms, commonly visual disturbances and nausea. Neck and spinal tension can be a contributory factor and when this is the case Chiropractic can help in migraine treatment, although it is just one of many approaches to migraine treatment. See the full article on Migraines here.
Cluster or ‘alarm-clock’ headaches are a rare type of primary headache affecting about 1% of the population, 85% of them male. The pain is extremely severe but the attack is brief; it may be only a few minutes, or last an hour or two.
These excruciatingly painful headaches cause an intense pain around one eye, which can be inflamed or watery, with possible nasal congestion. They’re rare and are called cluster headaches because they happen in clusters for a period of time, commonly lasting weeks or a month or two at a time around the same time of year.
They can strike in the middle of the night, or often at the same time each day. A history of heavy smoking and drinking is common, and alcohol can trigger attacks.
Pharmacy medications don’t ease the symptoms of a cluster headache, but a doctor can prescribe specific treatments to ease the pain. Chiropractic treatment is worth a try!
About 10% of headaches are caused by an underlying medical condition, medication, or drugs, commonly a hangover!
If you’re suffering from bad headaches it’s natural to think something serious may be wrong, like a brain tumour, but headaches from a serious medical condition, such as infection or increased pressure in the skull due to a tumour, are very rare. Listed below are some, but not all, of the secondary causes of headache:
- Colds, sinusitis, flu, allergic or immune reactions can tend to cause a generalized joint inflammation, which can also increase muscular spasm where tension is underlying. The headaches can be triggered or ‘spontaneously arise’ due to these illnesses, which can persist and worsen, even after the initial illness has subsided.
- Medication overuse can cause headaches, even overuse of medications intended to treat headaches themselves! Stopping the medication can help, but should be done under the advice of your doctor.
- Hormonal headaches in women, often linked to the menstrual cycle, along with the pill, menopause and pregnancy
Medications previously considered “safe” can be common causes (called analgesic rebound headache, medication misuse headache or drug-induced headache). Among the list are:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen).
- Sinus relief medications.
- Sedatives for sleep.
- Codeine and prescription narcotics.
- Over-the-counter headache remedies with caffeine such as Anacin, Excedrin and others. Excess Excedrin can trigger serious medication-overuse headaches.
- Vasodilators, such as nitroglycerin.
- Excess Aspirin.
Medication-overuse headaches start when medications stop relieving pain but start to cause headaches. This can prompt you to want to take more pain medication, which creates a negative cycle.
Headache Prevention Tips
- Avoid getting locked in one position for too long! Take breaks every 30-60 minutes, especially with computers, tablets and phones where we can all too easily look down too long (see Text neck and Chiropractic) or other activities like ironing, using a sewing machine, working on an addictive puzzle or reading.
- Gentle, relaxed movement or exercise, where you can avoid strain to the neck, may help relieve the pain associated with primary headaches. Be cautious of heavy or high-intensity exercise.
- Clenching the teeth can also contribute to headaches. Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction is a link. This can be helped with Chiropractic or Alexander Technique.
- Keep Hydrated! Sip water regularly to avoid dehydration, which can lead to headaches.
Migraine & Headache Red Flags: When to See a Doctor
Headache ‘red-flag’ signs & symptoms that require urgent medical attention:
- Trauma, accident or injury with a head-blow. You may experience a progressive continual headache after. This is a red flag, especially if it is slowly getting worse and not settling.
- Sudden onset headache that is excruciating, constant and worsening, with possible neurological signs including altered mental status and loss of consciousness.
- An abrupt, extremely severe headache, called ‘thunderclap headaches’.
- Headache with fever, stiff neck, mental confusion, seizures, double vision, weakness, numbness, trouble speaking or vomiting.
- A chronic headache that is worse after coughing, exertion, straining or a sudden movement.
- Meningitis – You are generally unwell with a progressive headache, usually generalised or frontal, which worsens over a period of hours, sometimes accompanied by a stiff neck or nausea.
- New headache pain after age 50.
Links to Headache related articles:
Please also see:
Cervicogenic or ‘Neck-Related’ Headaches
Pressure on the Spine and Discs – Dangers of sitting too long
Occipital Neuralgia – Headaches from suboccipital muscle spasm
Neck and Eye Pain using screens
Text neck and Chiropractic