Headaches often have no known cause, but those that are influenced by the neck are known as Cervicogenic Headaches. Sometimes the relationship is as simple as tight muscles from the neck pulling into the back of the head and causing pain. Other times, a joint or disc may be involved. In any of these cases, your osteopath can help.
Diagnosing a Cervicogenic Headache
There are a number of different kinds of headaches, and some are easier to identify than others. Unlike migraines, cervicogenic headaches do not come with an aura. Nausea or vomitting are also rare. The area of pain can be anywhere over the top and side of the head, including the ear and eye. Typically only one side is affected at a time. Duration of these headaches can be anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. If you get them recurrently, you may benefit from preventative osteopathic treatment.
The association between the headache and the neck can be tested in clinic:
Successfully treating the neck improves the headache
Range of movement in the neck may be reduced
Some neck movements may aggravate the headache
Osteopaths look at the person as a whole. Sometimes the neck problem is relatively subtle, and may not cause local symptoms. The headaches might be the first symptom of anything going wrong in the neck. Most musculoskeletal problems come with some degree of muscle tightness, as the brain wants to protect the painful area. The easiest way it can do this is to reduce its movement. Tight muscles can be a reaction to an area that is overworked, too.
In clinic we see a lot of people with stiff upper backs. This is often asymptomatic, but it is neck or lower back pain that brings the patient in. When the upper back gets stiff, the overall movement of the spine is reduced. However, we try and work through this if it isn’t causing pain. As a result, other areas of the spine have to compensate. The neck and lower back often work harder than they should.
This is where the muscle tightness comes in: if the brain detects a threat, such as excessive movement through a joint, it might try and guard itself. So sometimes, headaches are caused by a stiff upper back. Stiffness can be caused by general lack of movement, such as sitting in the same position at a desk all day. The more movement you can get in your working day, the better.
Treating Cervicogenic Headaches
As the cause is in the neck, this is where we will want to work. Treatment will often involve work to the muscles, whether that is massage, indirect resisted exercise, or acupuncture. For cases where joints are involved, we may use more gentle articulation techniques and stretches, or it may be appropriate to consider manipulation (clicking). We won’t do anything without your consent. We always have alternatives if you don’t like a specific technique.
Even if the cause is as simple as a tight muscle, we still want to understand where it’s come from. The neck can react to problems in the rest of the spine, the shoulders, or even the jaw. We may have questions for you concerning these areas, or we may want to examine and treat them.