Your Headache May be a Real Pain in the Neck
By Dr. Jim Byers
September 12, 2013
Headaches are on par with death and taxes as the inevitable byproducts of just plain living. Your age, physical condition, or healthy living practices have some effect on how often and how severe your headaches are, but literally everyone gets headaches at some point.
We experience headaches when we’re sick, tired, dehydrated, or tense. And, unless there is a serious organic cause to our headache such as a growth or an injury, doctors will generally prescribe common, inexpensive over-the-counter analgesics (pain killers) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen based headache remedies.
You may believe that all headaches are rooted in the tissues of the head, the skin surrounding the skull, or the blood vessels that feed the head. The standard headache remedies such as pain killers generally work for true “head” aches that originate in the tissues and muscles surrounding the skull.
But what else can cause a headache?
Cervicogenic headaches: A literal pain the neck
A cervicogenic headache is a headache that originates in the neck.
But let’s step back and talk some more medical jargon a bit. The key to understanding how the cervicogenic headache “works” is a key concept called referred pain.
Referred pain is any pain that is initiated by a malfunction in one part of the human body that is felt in another.
An “ice cream headache” - the pain you experience from eating ice cream or other cold treats too fast - is a familiar example of referred pain. The “headache” sensation is caused by rapid cooling and rewarming of the blood capillaries in the sinuses which affects two different nerve clusters around the throat - the trigeminal nerve or the vagus nerve.
Referred pain is also a common diagnosis in the dental professions, where pain initiated at one location is felt in the teeth in a different part of the mouth.
To treat referred pain, the problem has to be dealt with at the source of the pain.
How Chiropractors Treat Cervicogenic Headaches
The primary tool that chiropractors uniquely have at their disposal for treating neck-based headaches is spinal manipulation. Your chiropractor already knows how to apply spinal adjustments.
A study was conducted by Duke University’s Evidence-based Practice Center at the Center for Clinical Health Policy Research into the effectiveness, among other things, of chiropractic medicine when applied to these unique headaches. According to the study:
Spinal manipulation was associated with improvement in headache outcomes in two trials involving patients with neck pain and/or neck dysfunction and headache. Manipulation appeared to result in immediate improvement in headache severity when used to treat episodes of cervicogenic headache when compared with an attention-placebo control. Furthermore, when compared to soft-tissue therapies (massage), a course of manipulation treatments resulted in sustained improvement in headache frequency and severity.
(From: “Evidence Report: Behavioral and Physical Treatments for Tension-type and Cervicogenic Headache” as published by Duke University.)
The True Value of Chiropractic Treatment of Headaches
Pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen and acetaminophen are mostly ineffective at resolving headaches that originate in the neck tissues. Chiropractic manipulation has an extremely strong track record in easing these headaches.
You will most likely see the following benefits:
- You can decrease your use of pain killers. This makes sense from a wellness perspective: many analgesics have harmful interactions with cardiological health or the stomach. It’s also cheaper. A typical co-pay on a monthly chiropractic adjustment and massage session can easily cost less than the amount you’d spend on pain relievers in one month - with better results.
- Your “headache hours” will decrease and your quality of life will increase.
- Your headache intensity will decrease.
How Common are Cervicogenic Headaches?
A variety of studies of populations have been conducted by universities that indicate that up to 17% of headache sufferers have been found to be afflicted with cervicogenic headaches. The other types of headaches are tension headaches and migraines. So, the cervicogenic headache is roughly as common as the migraine.
Treatment of referred pain is fundamentally more challenging than pain felt at the source of the problem. Treatment of the “felt” location of referred pain is usually not effective and is a waste of time and money.
Using over the counter pain relievers on a cervicogenic headache certainly qualifies as such a lost opportunity and as a waste of time and money.
If you have tenderness or soreness of the neck in conjunction with a headache, it’s time to take the next step and visit a chiropractor. Your “headache” may literally be a pain in the neck.