Headaches are a common source of pain for a large number of Americans. 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.
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.
Headaches occur for many reasons and can vary greatly in their intensity and duration. They may arise on their own (these are termed “primary headaches” and account for about 90% of all headaches) or be triggered as a result of some other health condition (described as “secondary headaches”). Chiropractic physicians most commonly encounter three types of headaches in their work.
- Tension headaches are primary headaches that are brought on by unrelieved muscular contractions in the head, neck and shoulders, usually as a result of stress that cannot find an outlet. These 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.
- 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.
How Chiropractic Can Help
There is a large and growing body of medical research that suggests 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.
Chiropractic manipulation of the spine and neck is used to improve the alignment of the spine and relieve muscle tension. It also reduces nerve irritation and improves vascular flow. Your chiropractic physician may also include massage and other therapies as part of a well-rounded treatment plan. He or she will likely suggest exercise, stretching and relaxation techniques as well as nutritional strategies designed to help prevent future headaches.