Why headaches can be a pain in the neck, literally

Headaches are a common issue that everyone may face sometime in their life. They can often impact your ability to participate in activities you enjoy and hinder you from completing tasks at work or around the house. Often when a headache occurs we just take a pain reliever and hope that the pain goes away. Most individuals don’t usually think about why these headaches are caused or what is happening in our bodies that trigger them. 

Common headache types

There are three different types of headaches that are most common in the general population. All three have different causes and slightly different presentations that can aid in understanding the underlying cause.

Migraine headaches

Migraines can be debilitating to the sufferer and can impact their life anywhere from 4-72 hours for a single episode. Symptoms can be moderate to severe and include pounding or throbbing in the head that can shift from one side to the other. Nausea and vomiting can occur and physical activity can aggravate symptoms. Light and sound sensitivity is often observed and individuals may suffer from an aura. An aura is a sensory or visual disturbance that can last anywhere from 10 seconds to 30 minutes. Auras are different for each individual and can present anywhere from wavy lines in your visual field to tingling sensations in your arms. Flashing spots and blind spots are also common auras. Muscle weakness and difficulty with speech are less common auras but can be observed in some individuals.

Migraines are caused by the vasodilation of blood vessels located in the surrounding area of your brain. This widening of blood vessels can be caused by several different factors that vary from individual to individual. Migraine triggers can include certain foods or drinks as well as lack of sleep. A genetic component has also been found in migraine headaches.

Migraine prevention includes knowing your triggers and avoiding them, getting adequate sleep, regular exercise, and limiting stress. Preventative medication is also available for migraine sufferers.

Tension-type headaches

Tension headaches are the most common form of headaches. This headache type can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a week. Symptoms are described as mild to moderate in intensity with a pressing or tightening sensation experienced around the head. Tension headaches are not aggravated with physical activity.

The cause of these headaches can be attributed to factors such as poor posture, myofascial trigger points, or other stressors. Muscle tension due to improper posture and myofascial trigger points can bring about a tension headache. By treating the underlying causes, tension-type headaches can be prevented. Physical therapy can aid in the treatment of chronic tension-type headaches by finding the route of the cause and correcting it. A physical therapist will perform an evaluation and determine what deficits need to be addressed. Through physical therapy myofascial trigger points can be reduced and improper posture will be addressed to reduce the amount of tension-type headaches from being experienced.

Cervicogenic headaches

Cervicogenic headaches are headaches resulting from dysfunction in the cervical or neck region. The headache intensity experienced can be moderate to severe with varying durations. The pain experienced is often non-throbbing and provoked with different head positions or movements of the neck. Pain usually begins in the neck and moves up into the head.

This type of headache is a result of the convergence of nerves in your body. The nerve responsible for transmitting pain information from your head converges with the first three nerves in your cervical region. When there is dysfunction in your cervical region your body has a difficult time differentiating the neck pain from a headache so individuals will experience pain in both regions. This convergence can be seen in other areas of your body as well, and can be described as referred pain.

In order to eliminate the headache you must address the underlying issue in the cervical region. A physical therapist will perform an evaluation to determine the dysfunction that is causing your headaches. There are a number of factors that can play into cervicogenic headaches including, muscle tightness and decreased strength and endurance of your deep cervical muscles. These factors can be a result of poor posture, a previous whiplash injury, or underlying myofascial trigger points. With physical therapy tissue tension can be relieved and improved deep cervical muscle strength will occur which will decrease neck pain and in turn reduce headaches.

When should I contact a physician?

Most headaches are not cause for serious medical concern, but there are a few signs that indicate a serious underlying condition that should be evaluated by a physician. The following are signs that require contact with your physician:

  • A severe headache of sudden onset
  • Headache with fever, stiff neck, or shortness of breath
  • Headache with severe nausea and vomiting
  • Headache after a traumatic injury
  • Headache with dizziness, loss of balance, mental confusion, seizures, weakness, vision changes
  • A new type of headache after the age of 55

Physical therapy for headaches

All three types of headaches described above frequently overlap. An individual can experience all three types of headaches for varying durations and intensities. For example, a trigger point can be a trigger for migraine headaches as well as tension-type headaches and cervicogenic headaches. So, by reducing trigger points migraine headaches can be prevented, as well as tension and cervicogenic headaches.   A physical therapist will perform an evaluation to determine what underlying dysfunctions are occurring that could be triggering your headache. With physical therapy muscles will be retrained and strengthened in order to decrease headaches. Through physical therapy individuals will be able to get back to activities that headaches and neck pain were hindering.  For more information on physical therapy go to www.totalperformancept.com.

Call Total Performance Physical Therapy today to get rid of your headaches!

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