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 how those headaches will typically present.
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.
While whiplash and concussion often occur together, they create headache in different ways. Whiplash is the sudden overstretching and subsequent contraction of the soft tissues in the neck (muscles, tendons, ligaments etc), and can create headache through trigger points and muscle tightness, restriction in joints in the neck and restricted range of movement. Concussion occurs from the forces of an impact being transferred through the brain and it’s surrounding tissues, and can cause diffuse swelling in the brain and tissues, affecting brain function. This can cause headache from the increased intracranial pressure, the brains neural pathways being affected by inflammation or from the brains desire to heal causing sleepiness. Often the affects of the trauma are not felt until the next day, or the day after, making it common to wake up with headache and restriction from whiplash or concussion. It is often a diffuse, foggy headache in behind the eyes, where it is hard to concentrate and think clearly.
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.
Blood Pressure too high/low.
Blood pressure can be a factor in headaches, although it is rarely the only symptom that occurs when blood pressure is an issue. High blood pressure can increase the pressure in the space around the brain and can cause a pulsating headache that gets worse with physical activity. High BP can also cause dizziness, nausea, blurred vision and confusion. Low blood pressure can also cause headache, thought to be caused by blood vessels contracting and relaxing through the brain as the body tries to regulate BP. Low blood pressure is common with dehydration, so this is thought to be the cause of the hangover headache.
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.
A nerve’s normal function is to take messages from the brain through the spinal cord, out to the body and back. 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. Again, these headaches can be accompanied by neck pain and restricted range of movement.
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 unnatural forces, placing even more pressure on the surrounding tissues.
Diet- Caffeine and sugar withdrawals.
The most common way our diet affects headaches is though caffeine and sugar withdrawals. We crave sugar and caffeine because these chemicals affect key structures in the brain and on our cells. We become so reliant on these substances, that when we abruptly stop having them in our body, the body reacts as though there is something wrong, creating headache.
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.
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.
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.
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