You have probably seen some of the headache commercials and perhaps you remember this part: "...for your normal daily headaches take X drug." I guess the idea is for the consumer to think that headaches are part of the normal life and one just needs to live with them. Maybe that's why during an office consultation of a patient suffering from neck or upper back pain finding out about headache is sometimes only incidental. Maybe that's because some patients think headaches are what they can't do much about and basically is part of their daily life as they have been told by drug commercials over and over again. So often the connection between neck or upper back pain and headaches are missed.
More than sixty percent of Americans experience headaches, some frequently, some occasionally, and some have mild pain and some severe. Headaches are categorized as primary and secondary where primary headaches, such as migraine, tension and cluster headaches are the most prevalent.
The majority of headaches (about 90%) are caused by tension or spasm of the neck muscles. Spasm in the suboccipital muscles (back of skull, just above the neck) could cause tension in the area triggering a headache. Also muscle spasm or tightness in the jaws could play a role in initiation of tension headaches.
All the mentioned muscles have attachment to vertebrae of the neck spine. Now if these muscles become tight the function and mechanical movement of neck spine could be adversely affected which could lead to further joint tension and eventually more tension in the skull.
Treatment of Headaches
To treat tension headaches the following often required to be addressed:
1. Tight or weak muscles of the neck and upper back need to be relaxed and normalized.
2. The normal movement and alignment of neck and thoracic spine need to be re- established.
3. A thorough assessment of Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) and patient's overall posture has to be done. It's a common occurrence for a patient with headache to have some sort of jaw problem, such as pain, clinching, grinding, or clicking. It's also common for a patient with abnormal posture, to be more prone to headaches due to certain life style.
4. Sensitivity to certain foods or chemicals needs to be ruled out.
The most common treatment has been over the counter or prescribed drugs which could be effective to some degree for some people. Then again, as it is in the most cases, drugs counter the symptom and not the cause. To eliminate the cause of tension headaches all the factors mentioned earlier need to be addressed.
Chiropractic Treatment of Headaches
When the headaches are caused by muscle spasm, spine misalignment, TMJ dysfunction or poor posture chiropractic care could be very effective. We have been very successful in helping individuals with headaches and this success has not been limited to individuals with tension headaches only. Migraine headache sufferers often find relief with chiropractic care. The least we have achieved with migraine patients has been reducing the frequency and intensity of their headaches.
Treatment involves relaxing muscle spasm through stretching, trigger point therapy, and myofascial release technique. The misalignments are corrected by chiropractic manipulation which could involve no or low force techniques depending on patient's case or request.
We teach patients how to stretch or strengthen the involved neck or upper back muscles and if the posture is playing a role, which is not a rare findings, that is dealt with through chiropractic manipulation, specific stretches and exercises, and a review of work or home ergonomics.