By Michael Chamberland, DC
June is Migraine and Headache Awareness Month. If you have a headache, you’re not
alone. Many people suffer from headaches. Some are occasional and frequent. Others are constant. Some are mild, dull and throbbing while others cause intense, debilitating pain with nausea, vomiting and vision or balance problems.
What do you do when you suffer from a pounding or stabbing headache? Do you grit your teeth and carry on? Lie down? Take over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription pain medication and hope it goes away? There is an alternative to consider.
Spinal Manipulation Therapy (SMT)
Research shows that SMT, a centerpiece of chiropractic care, may be an effective treatment option for cervicogenic or tension headaches, which are headaches that originate in the neck or sometimes the upper back. Pain medications have limited effects on these types of headaches, so attention has turned to the use of non-drug options. A scientific review of research published in 2020* determined that SMT could be considered an effective treatment for tension headaches because it provides, “superior, small, short-term effects for pain intensity, frequency and disability when compared with other manual therapies.” The authors recommend additional studies to better understand the findings. Other studies have shown that spinal manipulation can help reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of migraine headaches as well.
Headaches have many causes or “triggers.” These may include:
- Environmental stimuli (noises, lights, stress, etc.)
- Behaviors (insomnia, excessive exercise, blood sugar changes, etc.)
About five percent of all headaches are warning signals caused by other pathological problems.
Ninety-five percent of headaches are primary headaches, such as tension, migraine or cluster headaches. These types of headaches are not caused by a different disease (secondary headaches). The headache itself is the primary concern.
In addition, with current societal habits, people engage in increasingly sedentary activities compared to the past. More hours are spent in one “fixed or static” position or posture. This can increase spinal joint irritation and muscle tension in the neck, upper back and scalp, decreasing proper blood flow and causing your head to ache.
What Can You Do?
Consider these lifestyle strategies to prevent and help alleviate headaches:
- If you spend a large amount of time in one fixed position, such as in front of a computer, on a cell phone, typing, playing video games or reading, take a break by getting up to move around and stretch about every 30 minutes. The stretches should take your head, neck and shoulders (the whole body is even better) through a comfortable range of motion without causing pain. Focus more on gentle movements than sustained “held” stretches. Get your muscles and blood moving.
- Low-impact exercise may help relieve the pain associated with primary headaches. However, if you are prone to dull, throbbing headaches it may be best to avoid heavy intensive exercise. Engage in activities such as walking and low-impact aerobics.
- Avoid excessive teeth clenching. The upper teeth should never consistently touch the lowers, except when chewing and swallowing. This results in stress at the temporomandibular joints (TMJ), the two joints that connect your jaw to your skull, leading to TMJ irritation and a form of tension headaches.
- Drink an adequate amount of water each day to help avoid dehydration, which can lead to headaches.
When it comes to food triggers, consider avoiding the following:
- Excessive caffeine. Foods such as chocolate, coffee/tea, sodas and energy drinks contain high levels of the stimulant. For some people, this causes headaches. Others can experience “withdrawal” headaches when they suddenly stop drinking caffeine when there is normal daily consumption, especially a higher volume of intake. (In some circumstances, consuming caffeine can help reduce acute headache pain.)
- High salt or sugar content. These foods may cause migraines resulting in sensitivity to light, noise or abrupt movements.
- Alcoholic beverages. These drinks can dehydrate you and cause headache pain. If you drink too much and then stumble or fall, you could hit your head and cause a traumatic headache or concussion (not technically a food “trigger” but still dangerous to the body).
- High-protein foods, dairy products, red or processed meat. Some people may have a “food sensitivity” which causes headaches when eating certain types of foods or drinks.
What Can a Chiropractor Do?
Your chiropractic physician (DC) may take one or multiple approaches to alleviate pain from a primary headache:
- Perform spinal manipulation or “chiropractic adjustments” to improve spine and soft tissue mobility and alignment, which can alleviate the stress on your nervous and musculoskeletal system. This could be done directly with their hands, assisted by a chiropractic “drop” table or by using an adjusting instrument to perform the manipulation.
- Provide nutritional advice, recommending a change in dietary habits and perhaps the addition of B complex vitamins, magnesium or an herb like feverfew.
- Offer advice on general posture, sleeping positions, ergonomics (work and hobby postures or repetitive movements), exercises and relaxation techniques. This advice should help relieve the recurring joint irritation and tension in the ligaments, muscles and fascia of the neck, upper back and shoulders.
Chiropractors undergo extensive training to help their patients in many ways. Their work is not just limited to back pain. They know how tension in the spine and surrounding tissue can relate to problems in other parts of the body and they can take steps to help relieve those symptoms.
Chiropractic Care Can Help
Talk to your chiropractor about other ways to prevent pain. DC’s are trained and licensed to examine and treat the entire body with specific emphasis on the nervous and musculoskeletal systems. In addition to their expertise in determining the necessity and then performing spinal and other joint manipulations, chiropractors are trained to perform soft tissue treatments, recommend therapeutic and rehabilitative exercises, as well as to provide nutritional, dietary and lifestyle counseling.
For more information on how a Gifford chiropractor may be able to help you, contact the Sharon Health Center at 763-8000.
*Fernandez M, Moore C, Tan J, Lian D, Nguyen J, Bacon A, Christie B, Shen I, Waldie T, Simonet D, Bussières A. Spinal manipulation for the management of cervicogenic headache: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur J Pain. 2020 Oct;24(9):1687-1702. doi: 10.1002/ejp.1632. Epub 2020 Jul 20. PMID: 32621321