Headaches can be triggered by many causes, including physical or emotional stress, toxic fumes, certain foods, preservatives, alcohol, bright light, trauma, hormonal changes, too much or too little sleep, allergies, or high blood pressure. A frequently overlooked cause of headaches is misalignment of spinal bones (vertebrae) in the neck and upper back. When spinal bones lose their normal position and motion, delicate nerves and blood vessels to the head can be affected.
One thing is certain: Recurring headaches are a sign that something is wrong. Medications such as aspirin and ibuprofen may temporarily ease pain, but they only mask the symptoms. They do nothing to correct the source of the problem. And while the problem remains, the headaches will come back...again and again.
What type of headache do I have?
There are specific labels for different types of headaches. By far, tension headaches are the most common type in the United States. They may affect as mush as 95% of the population at one time or another.
Tension headache sufferers report dull, steady pain or vice-like tightness on one or both sides of the head. Typically, these headaches begin with physical or mental stress that causes contraction of muscles in the neck, back, and head. These prolonged contractions rob the muscles of oxygen, making them release chemicals that transmit "referred" pain signals to the brain. Referred pain has its source in one place but is felt in another. That means the place that hurts may not be the place that needs treatment.
Anything that causes neck and back muscles to tighten can trigger a tension headache: emotional stress from a job or relationship, poor posture, strain from driving in heavy traffic or bad weather, and even adjusting to new lenses in glasses. And physical stress from pain in another part of the body, often the spine, can cause chronic muscle contractions leading to tension headaches.
These intensely throbbing, stabbing headaches occur when blood vessels supplying the scalp and brain rapidly dilate. It includes migraines and cluster headaches. Migraine sufferers are often completely debilitated, feeling nausea and unable to bear noise or light, from a few hours to a few days while the migraine lasts. Cluster headaches are so-called because they occur in groups, lasting from 10 minutes to three hours and recurring for up to eight times a day.
These headaches are caused by problems with vertebrae, often in the cervical spine (neck). The headaches may be felt in the back, sides and front of the head or the front of the face or neck. Changes in the normal curvature of the cervical spine caused by trauma, degenerative arthritis, or poor posture can cause chronic irritation to nerve roots between the vertebrae. The onset of pain is sudden (acute) and may also cause muscle contractions in the neck that bring on a tension headache as well.
When headaches are frequent or recur over time, they can make life miserable. Everything else becomes secondary to the pain. Remember, pain is how the body tells us that something is wrong. It's not wise to ignore the signals and treat just the symptoms. Seek your chiropractor's help in finding and eliminating the cause of your headaches.
A Doctor of Chiropractic is highly experienced in finding the causes behind headaches as well as relieving the immediate pain. He or she can help determine whether a physical or structural problem may be involved and, if so, correct it. Usually, a series of spinal adjustments to return misaligned vertebrae to a more normal position and motion can relieve pressure on irritated nerve roots. A chiropractor can also help identify headache triggers and can suggest relaxation exercises, therapy and lifestyle modifications to help avoid future headaches.
A safer approach
Medical management of headaches usually involves medications which are never risk-free. Side effects and even dependencies are common. Chiropractic care offers a safe, natural alternative to relieving and preventing headaches.
What you can do
Follow your doctor's recommendations for diet and fitness. Use the relaxation techniques suggested by your chiropractor. Keep a diary of your activities, what foods you eat, and chemicals and smells you are exposed to over a period of weeks. The diary can help identify headache triggers. And be patient: If you're seeking help for a long-standing problem, it may take a while to resolve it.