The Anatomy and Physiology of Headaches

Headaches are one of the most common types of pain that people experience on a regular basis.  Researchers estimate that nine out of ten Americans suffer from headache pain at some point.  95% of women and 90% of men have had at least one in the past 12 months.  And for about 45 million of us, those headaches are chronic.

The frequency, severity and duration of headaches can vary greatly from individual to individual.  They range from occasional to near-constant and from mild to throbbing.  Some are bad enough to cause nausea and become debilitating, preventing the sufferer from working and enjoying day-to-day leisure activities.

What exactly causes headaches?

Headaches occur for many reasons.  When they arise on their own (true 90%-95% of the time), they’re referred to as “primary headaches.”  When they’re triggered as a result of some other health condition, they’re called “secondary headaches.”  Chiropractic physicians most commonly encounter three different types of headaches in their work with patients:

  • Tension headaches are primary headaches that are brought on by unrelieved muscular contractions in the head, neck and shoulders and/or a misalignment (subluxation) of the neck vertebrae.  They’re often the result of stress that cannot find an outlet.  Misalignment and muscular contractions can themselves become the source of broader tension and stress throughout the body, setting in motion a feedback loop that eventually produces a headache.  According to Dr. George McClelland, a chiropractor in Virginia, “Today, Americans engage in more sedentary activities than they used to, and more hours are spent in one fixed position or posture.  This can increase joint irritation and muscle tension in the neck, upper back and scalp, causing your head to ache.”
  • Migraine headaches are also primary headaches.  They are sometimes referred to as vascular headaches because they happen when blood vessels in the head suddenly expand, or “dilate”.  However, we know that the nervous system and genetic factors are also leading contributors.  Sufferers report a wide range of triggers and related symptoms.  Research into the exact cause of migraines is ongoing, and the condition has stubbornly resisted efforts to find a pharmaceutical “silver bullet”.
  • Cervicogenic headaches are secondary headaches produced when pain begins in the neck or back of the head and is referred to the forehead or the area behind, in and around the eyes.  Trauma, chronic tension and disease are some of the more common initial sources of neck pain that is referred to the head.  Trigger points in the neck, shoulder blade and spine may also be sources of these headaches, though they can be much more difficult to identify.

What can be done to relieve headache pain?

While a wide variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications have been developed to relieve this pain, they generally do little to address the underlying cause of the problem.  In addition, many of these compounds can have unwanted side effects, particularly if they’re used often, over a prolonged period of time or in combination with other medicines.  A growing awareness of both the limitations and risks of pharmaceuticals has led many headache sufferers to explore alternative approaches to managing them, including chiropractic.

A large and growing body of medical research suggests that chiropractic care can be effective in preventing or reducing the frequency and severity of primary headaches.  There is also some evidence that it may have benefits for cervicogenic headache sufferers.  In a study conducted by the New Zealand government, the majority of those suffering recurrent headaches from spinal misalignment found that their headaches were relieved by chiropractic manipulation, and many were found to still be pain-free in the two-year follow-up.  A study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics found that spinal manipulation such as that used by chiropractors is more effective and longer-lasting for treating tension headaches than the use of commonly prescribed pain medication.

A chiropractic physician will perform a thorough examination to identify the cause of your headache pain.  Depending on your specific circumstances, he or she may perform chiropractic manipulation or mobilization to improve the alignment of the spine, relieve muscle tension, reduce nerve irritation and improves vascular flow.  Massage and other therapies may also be included as part of a well-rounded treatment plan.  In many cases, this will relieve headache symptoms.  Your chiropractor may also offer posture and lifestyle recommendations to help prevent future headaches.  These may involve diet, exercise, sleep and stress management techniques.

Remember—if you or someone you care about suffers from recurring or chronic headaches, there are effective treatment options available that don’t involve drugs.  We encourage you to call or visit our office to learn more!

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