Health, neck pain, physical therapy, physiotherapy

How to get rid of Headaches – All you need to know and do

May 30, 2013 • By

By whatever name you want to call them, tension, stress or cervicogenic Headaches are a huge problem in today’s high demand, high stress world. Here you will find out what your headaches are caused by and most importantly how YOU can improve and get rid of headaches drug-free!

Many have headaches as a common occurrence, simply cannot get rid and have learnt to live with them and for the majority of headaches sufferers, this simply should not and does not need to be the case. This is because a common cause of headaches is the sub-occipital muscles of the cervical spine which in simpler terms are the muscles right at the base of the skull.

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And here’s the kicker – THIS CAN BE TREATED.

These headaches are called Cervicogenic headaches, also commonly known as tension headaches. The pain is experienced in the forehead, temples, around the eyes and often gets worse with prolonged postures, stress and neck pain.

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Starting to sound familiar? If so read on!

How do these muscles cause headaches?

The pain is essentially caused by trigger points in the muscle referring pain to different points on the head. These  are caused by a number of things, including the following, and often not by one factor in isolation.

The main causes of the trigger points are:

  1. Poor posture: poor posture causes a lot of stress on the posterior structures of the upper neck. Poor posture causes a forward head posture, which closes down of the joints of the upper spine, in turn putting stress on the supporting muscle to hold the head up while out of alignment. This stress causes the sub-occipital muscles to tighten up in order to protect the joints, which if maintained this can cause trigger points and chronic pain.
  2. Stress: when under stress, from any source then you tend to tense up your shoulders, raise your shoulder blades and tense up at the back of your neck causing a forward head posture and over activation of you global muscles. Along with this, the chemical make up in your body changes.
  3. Sports: sports that need a lot of hyper-extension such as diving and climbing and also sports that can injure and put pressure on the neck as these actions close down the joints at the back of your neck and cause muscle guarding and increased tension. Contact sports such as football and rugby also cause jarring and injury which can lead to headaches.
  4. Spinal injury – such as whiplash.
  5. Degenerative spinal disease and arthritis. These diseases cause breakdown of joint surfaces and extra bone growth causing a lot of pain and irritation. Because of this the surrounding muscles tense up to try and protect the joints, this leads to knots in the surrounding muscles which no longer function properly and can cause pain themselves.

Once trigger points are formed and you have the headaches that go untreated then often they stick around due to decreasing muscle function, with a number of factors having effect:

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  1. When the sub-occipital muscles tighten and form trigger points, if left untreated, these form a cycle of decreasing muscle function. The trigger points and tight muscles decrease the blood getting into these muscles leading to tighter muscles and more pain.
  2. The second major problem which adds to this cycle is loss of feeling in the neck. When in pain, the proprioceptors in the neck are inhibited, these receptors relay information  to your brain, telling you where your body is in space. Due to pain and tightness, the receptors can no longer effectively sense if your head is in the correct position and this leads to worse neck posture and also decreased movement due to trying to protect the area.
  3. The third point that adds to this cycle just like in low back pain is loss of activation of the deep stabilising muscles. The deep neck flexors are the core of your neck and in pain disorders these stabilising muscles show decreased muscle control and endurance. This leads to less stabilisation which in turn causes large global muscles such as your upper traps and levator scapulae to take of and be a nuisance.

So how do you know if you are getting cervical headaches and not migraines? Here is a quick reference table in oreder to help differentiate between tension headaches and migraines.

Cervicogenic headache

Migraine

Effectiveness of pain killers

Decreasing

Limited response

Description

Dull, aching

Described as an attack

Intensity

Variable

Severe

Effect of migraine drugs

No relief

Relief

Family history

No connection

Family history related

Neck pain

Some neck tenderness or stiffness

none

Quick test: The most significant test I use in practice everyday (if the above matches) is palpation of the offending muscles.

You can do this by feeling the sub-occipital muscles with your index finger, with the middle finger on top of it for support.  Push into the muscles gently and massage(with reasonable force) around the muscles at the base of your skull. When you come across a part of the muscles which feels harder, lumpier of slightly painful, stay there and increase the pressure – if the pain from this refers into the head similar to the headaches you get, then this is most likely a major cause or contributor of your headaches and CAN BE TREATED.

How are cervical headaches treated?

These headaches can be treated very effectively by a Physiotherapist, the aim of treatment is to:

  1. Relax the muscles, mobilize the joints.
  2. Increase muscle stabilization.
  3. Treat the causative factor if possible, such as poor posture or stress.

But as always I want you to help your self and be as independent as a possible! In subsequent posts I will let you in on how to get rid of  headaches at home:

See my posts on these techniques and if you really stick to the above three points and give them a good try, then you will achieve awesome results. Why live with the pain and discomfort if you can do something about it as easy as this. Even spending 10-20 minutes each day doing these self treatments will help! Try it for 6 weeks and you will be sleeping well again.

Let me know how you get on!