Headache is one of the most common disorders present in our society, but one of the most poorly understood. Because there are so many causes of headache, it is impossible to take a one size fits all approach in treatments. What works for one headache and individual will not work for another, so while your mothers friends sisters headache was ‘cured’ by something, doesn’t mean that your headache will react the same. Headache is best dealt with by a health professional for proper diagnosis and treatment. Remember, just because headache is common, it doesn’t mean it is normal. Headache is one of your body’s ways of communicating that there is something happening that requires attention.
Here we will discuss some causes of headache, and some different approaches to specific types of headache.
1. Muscle tightness and trigger points
Tight muscles and trigger points(knots) in muscles are very common causes of a pain in the head. Different muscles can refer pain to anywhere on the head, and these types of headaches are often sharp, pulling or a diffuse ache on one area of your head. Depending on which muscles are affected, these headaches can also be accompanied by neck stiffness and restricted range of movement in neck and shoulders.
Headaches caused by muscle tightness and trigger points are often relieved by chiropractic adjustments, massage therapy, or any other bodywork that can help release tight muscles.
2. External pressure on the head- hair too tight, bobby pins sticking in, headband, hats, helmets.
Pressure on the surface of the head can cause headache in a couple of different ways. The physical pulling on the skin and fascia from pulling hair too tight requires opposing muscles to pull against the pressure to keep balance. This fatigues the muscles and creates soreness. Bobby pins and clips pushing in on the skin can create local irritation and press on sensitive areas of the skull, creating a local pain.
External pressure on the head can also interfere with normal cranial bone movement, creating restrictions and headaches. As we breathe, our cranial bones flex and bend to accommodate changes in spinal fluid flow and intracranial pressures. Things that hold the head tightly, like headbands, dental braces, tight hairstyles, hats, helmets and caps can all restrict the movement between the cranial bones.
Removing the source of the irritation/pressure is the first step to helping a headache from this cause, then using a craniosacral therapist or a chiropractor trained in cranial techniques, like Dr Bridget, to help restore proper cranial movement.
When we need sleep, our brain reaches a functional capacity and tries everything to get us to relax and sleep. If you are prone to headaches, being tired will often trigger a headache.
Stress can also cause headache, as stress triggers the fight or flight response which causes changes in hormones, posture, mood and more, all of which can cause headache. A headache caused by stress will typically present as a ‘tension’ headache, which usually feels like a band of pressure around the head, or a vice-like squeezing across the temples.
Often helped by a good night’s sleep, this type of headache often resolves on it’s own. However, if you get headaches like this more than once a week, it would be worth talking to a health professional about reducing your stress and improving your sleep habits. Our chiropractors here are trained in SD Protocol, a technique to reduce stress on your body and have some great tips regarding healthy sleep habits, or talking with a trained counsellor or therapist for more specific help.
4. Nerve irritation
A nerve’s normal function is to take messages from the brain through the spinal cord and out to the body and back again. This can be impeded when the nerve is compressed or irritated at some point along its path. When a nerve is irritated it can produce symptoms in the area of the body supplied by that nerve, including numbness, pain, weakness and tingling.
The nerves that supply the head come from the upper part of the neck, coming out between the first few cervical vertebrae. If these nerves become irritated it can create a diffuse, constant headache in a certain area, sometimes exacerbated by certain positions of the head and neck. These headaches can be accompanied by neck pain and restricted range of movement.
An assessment with a chiropractor can help you determine if the pain you are feeling is from nerve irritation or other causes, as musculoskeletal therapists we are trained to assess the cause of the pain. We can refer for imaging such as xrays if required, and have plenty of gentle techniques to take pressure off the irritated nerve and home exercises for you to keep the body moving.
5. Poor posture- head weight and pressure on joints and nerves
When we are in poor postures consistently throughout the day and evening, it can take a toll on the muscles, joints and connective tissues at the back of the neck. When our head is upright, it weighs approx 5kg. For every 10 degrees our head drops forward, it’s relative weight doubles, meaning our neck can be straining to hold significant weight on structures not designed to hold that much. As we have covered, tight and strained muscles can create trigger points that refer pain into the head and create headache. When we are consistently in these postures over years, the bones in our neck can change shape in compensation to these un-ergonomic forces, placing even more pressure on the surrounding tissues.
One of the first things our chiropractors assess is your posture, and we have plenty of tips and tricks to help you improve your posture throughout the day. If you want to make a start on improving your posture, a great place to start is the “Straighten Up” app from the Australian Chiropractors Association. Download this app for stretch routines and reminders to check your posture!
6. Jaw problems and clenching/grinding teeth
The TMJ (jaw joint) is a common cause of pain in the head and face. The joint sits in front of the ear, and has many strong muscles associated with it to help us chew. When you clench your teeth, these muscles are contracted and create tightness and trigger points in the face and head muscles. Grinding your teeth can also cause toothache and subsequently headache. Restriction in the TMJ can create pain in the face, ear and side of the head.
Our chiropractors are trained to assess and treat your TMJ, as well as surrounding muscles and joints that can affect jaw movement.
Typically seen in females, often around the same points in their menstrual cycle, surges in hormones as your body switches from one phase to the next can cause headache. This is often a foggy, draining headache with a diffuse ache through the head. Common in the days before a period starts or during the first few days of bleeding, but can also occur around ovulation in the middle of the cycle.
Some hormonal problems can be exacerbated by stress, which our chiros can help with information on how to reduce. Hormonal issues are typically co-managed with other professionals, we have a wonderful network of GPs, naturopaths and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners who can help to support your body to settle hormones.
As you can see, there is lots of overlap between headache causes and symptoms, with different causes presenting with a similar headache experience. If you are sick of guessing where your headache is coming from, book in with us here at Ballarat Chiropractic to have your headache assessed and take the guesswork out of dealing with your headaches.
What is something we do 22,000 times a day? Breathe.
Yes, breathing. It seems like it should be a simple activity, one we don’t even need to think about. Well, one of the things we love doing as chiropractors is helping people improve their function and health by making small changes. Yep, changing how you breathe will absolutely improve your overall health.
Did you know?
So how can breathing in a different way affect stress?
If you are only breathing through your mouth, not using your nose at all, this can increase blood pressure and pulse rate, and decrease mental acuity and heart rate variability, all measures of increased stress on the body. So simply closing your mouth and breathing through your nose as much as possible is a great place to start.
If you are someone who has difficulty breathing through your nose, from sinus blockages, allergies etc, then start small, even just 10 mins every hour is a great start! Also, mention this to your chiro at your next appointment, there are some wonderful gentle releases that may help blocked sinuses!
When our body is exposed to stress, we become stuck in our fight or flight response, leaving us feeling anxious, irritated, fearful and on high alert, unable to rest. Ideally, we should be able to switch from our fight or flight response into a rest and digest response quite easily. But once our body has been running in fight or flight for a while, it needs a concentrated effort to switch this off and get some quality rest.
The tissue lining the nose has links to our ‘fight or flight’ system and our ‘rest and digest’ system. So we can use breathing through our nose to activate our rest and digest response.
Here are two techniques that use breathing to help us go from fight or flight, to rest and digest:
Using deep breathing techniques may help with a wide range of stress related issues. For a full list of how stress affects the body, see our blogs on stress, and SD protocol.
Breathing also affects how well we sleep. If we are breathing through our mouth while we sleep, we are more prone to snoring, sleep apnea and lighter, non REM sleep.
When breathing through the mouth while asleep, the soft tissues at the back of the throat become loose and decrease the space in the airway. This encourages snoring and sleep apnea episodes, interrupting deep sleep and often leading you to wake up feeling like you have barely slept.
Normally, when we are getting enough REM sleep, our body produces a hormone called vasopressin, which encourages our cells to store water. When our REM sleep is insufficient, our vasopressin is lower, our cells release more water, and we will have the urge to pee during the night. This also lowers the quality of our sleep if we are waking through the night to use the toilet.
Again, the solution is the same. Breathing through the nose as often as you can. At night this is harder as we cannot control what we do in our sleep, but there is growing evidence that taping your mouth shut (just using small strips of tape) can encourage nasal breathing at night and decrease snoring and sleep apnea.
At first, breathing through the nose may feel difficult, especially if you have been relying on your mouth to breathe. The more you breathe through your nose, the easier it becomes, as the nasal passages widen and get less blocked with more use. This one, small but significant change can affect your entire body, reducing stress and improving sleep, something I think we would all benefit from. So give it a go and let us know how you find it!Blog inspired by reading Breath by James Nestor, highly recommend reading this book!
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