How Does My Neck Contribute to my Headaches?
Updated: Feb 27, 2019
In this week’s blog we will be discussing the role the neck can play in causing or contributing to headaches. In general headaches are a headache to try and explain. In fact there are 14 main categories of headaches and each of these categories has several sub classifications resulting in over 300 different types of headaches. The three main types of headaches (each with lots of sub-types) that we treat in the clinic are:
1. Tension type headaches
2. Headaches attributed to disorders of the neck, known as cervicogenic headaches
3. Headaches attributed to trauma or injury to the head and/or neck.
Tension Type Headaches:
Tension type headaches are very common among the general population affecting as many as 78% of people over their lifetime.
The exact cause of these headaches is unknown, however they are strongly associated with tenderness, and often reproduction of symptoms, on palpation through the pericranial muscles.
These include the frontal, temporal, masseter, pterygoid, sternocleidomastoid, splenius and trapezius muscles.
Due to the close insertion of these muscles onto the base of the skull, tension type headaches are typically felt through the jaw and back & side of the head.
Headaches Attributed to Disorders of the Neck:
Stiffness, restriction, irritation, inflammation and/or pain in the structures of the cervical spine are common causes of headaches.
Specifically this category relates to a headache that is caused by a non traumatic disorder of the cervical spine, including the vertebrae, joints, intervertebral disc or surrounding soft tissue.
The headaches may or may not by accompanied by neck pain and are typically felt over the side or top of the head and progressively behind the eyes.
Headaches Attributed to Trauma or Injury to the Head and/or Neck:
As the name suggest this category relates to headaches that arise after a traumatic episode. Specifically this category requires that the headache has developed within seven days following trauma or injury, regaining consciousness and/or after recovering the ability to sense and report pain. Included in this category are headaches secondary to whiplash injuries, head trauma, or cervical/cranial surgery.
It is very common for people with persistent neck pain or stiffness to develop headaches. This can be arising from the joints in the neck (cervicogenic headache), or from the muscles in the neck (tension headache). In many cases the two causes will coexist, with excessive muscle tension causing a headache into the base of the skull (where the muscles insert), which then overloads the upper cervical (neck) joints leading to irritation of the joints and a cervicogenic headache.
The neck joints most commonly involved in cervicogenic headaches tend to be the three at the top known as:
· Atlanto-occipital joint (O-C1) – joint from the skull to the 1st cervical joint
· Atlanto-axial joint (C1/2) – joints between the first and second cervical vertebrae
· C2/3 – joints between the second and third cervical joints.
Simply put, your neck joints can cause a headache if they are either too stiff or locked in an unmoveable position or if they are unstable and move too much (e.g. wobbly and unsupported by weak muscles).
As previously mentioned many of the muscles in the upper shoulders and neck insert onto the base of the skull. If these muscles are overworking, knotted or in a state of spasm they can create pain and a tension headache. These muscles can be forced into over use by adopting poor postures or if they are trying to protect injured or aggravated neck joints.
As well as developing tension due to overuse, some of our neck muscles (usually on the opposite side to those that get tight) can become weak with disuse. This places a further demand on your overworking muscles resulting in fatigue-related symptoms that can progress to trigger points, muscle spasm and tension type headaches.
The following symptoms are characteristics of neck headaches. You may experience any one or several of these symptoms combined:
· Pain that radiates from the back to the front of your head.
· Headache that is provoked or eased by a neck movement, a sustained posture, stomach sleeping or with your head turned to one side.
· Your headache normally appears to be worse on one side of your head, that is consistent and doesn’t swap sides
· Symptoms will ease when pressure is applied at the back of your neck or the base of your skull
So, what can you do about neck related headaches? Physiotherapy, Chiropractic and Remedial Massage are all beneficial in helping to alleviate symptoms and getting to the root cause of the issue.
A wide range of causes exist for neck related headaches including, degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis, a prolapsed disc in the neck, or a whiplash injury. Poor posture while sitting or standing at work, sleeping in awkward positions as well as poor quality pillows can also lead to aggravation in the neck resulting in headache symptoms.
In the clinic we provide soft tissue release and joint mobilization techniques coupled with stretching and postural correction exercises to effectively alleviate your symptoms. And for this reason, it is important to get a qualified allied health professional to assess your neck and identify what the cause of your headaches is.
3 tips that you can employ now to help with your headache are:
1. Look at your posture, do you look like this?
Give your neck a break by re-adjusting your posture often throughout the day and engage in chin tuck exercises every hour to unload the sensitive structures in your neck
2. Look at your pillow. Does it support your neck and hold it in a neutral position?
If it looks flat or too low, then fold a bath towel and place it under your pillow to make it firmer and higher. If this improves your symptoms, then it’s time for a new pillow.
3. When you get a headache, especially if it’s a tension type headache, then try a some self-release techniques.
Apply pressure to these points to help reduce the severity of your symptoms. Hold each for ten seconds and repeat 3 times. Applying heat afterward can help alleviate muscle spasm and further reduce symptoms.
So that’s a brief overview of how neck disorders can be causing or contributing to your headaches, If you have questions or comments feel free to e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to answer them for you.
If you think you may already be suffering from tension type or cervicogenic headaches, then addressing it sooner rather than later is crucial. So, if you want relief now, call us on (08) 9486 8653 and we will arrange an appointment for you.