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Headaches: Identifying Causes and How to Treat Them

Headaches, Headaches, Headaches 

Identifying Causes and How to Treat Them

by Ashleigh Muse, DC

Headaches affect more than 45 million Americans per year, and people spend over $2 billion per year on over-the-counter medications. Ninety-five percent of headaches are primary headaches, such as tension, cluster or migraines. The most common triggers of these headaches are due to joint irritation and muscle tension in the neck and shoulders, usually from poor posture, prolonged sitting positions and other sedentary activities. Other common causes of primary headaches include stress, physical inactivity, teeth grinding, dehydration, insomnia, skipping meals, anxiety and depression.

With increasing technology, adults and children are spending more time in fixed postures that contribute to forward head posture (FHP). In a balanced spine, the head should be positioned on top of the shoulders. But as we spend more hours on our computers or in slumped sitting postures, our heads tend to migrate forward, causing the shoulders to round and our chest to drop. For every inch our heads move forward, the effects of gravity pull our 12-pound head down. This can equal an additional 10 pounds of stress on our neck and shoulder muscles.

In an attempt to hold our heads up, our muscles begin to compensate, which causes compressive loads on the upper thoracic vertebrae and upper cervical spine. In some cases, an additional 20 to 30 pounds of weight can be added to the cervical spine and may even result in a loss of vital lung capacity. These compensations result in changes in muscle tone, followed by muscular imbalance, movement dysfunction, and the body’s inability to support itself, as well as subsequent pain and deterioration. Once these postural changes start to occur, even normal activities of daily living become potential irritants and triggers for FHP and headaches.

FHP is a sign of a condition known as upper crossed syndrome (UCS). In UCS, the suboccipital group of muscles of the neck and chest region shortens, inhibiting the neck extensors to remain strong and functioning correctly. This causes muscular weakness and the inability of the extensors to do their job in holding the head up. This can lead to cervical hypolordosis, which is straightening of the curve of the neck, rounding of the shoulders and humping of the upper back. These muscular tensions and imbalances in the upper cervical spine can put pressure on the suboccipital nerves and lead to headaches. If these imbalances are left untreated, they can lead to disc deterioration and bony changes. Once bony changes start, they can make it hard to return to normal and efficient posture.

Chiropractic manipulative therapies, combined with other adjunct therapies, have proven to be beneficial in treating headaches by reversing the postural changes of UCS. Treatment options will vary according to the individual but may include muscle work, such as trigger point therapy; active release technique; myofascial adhesion release; ultrasound; galvanic muscle stimulation; decompression traction; and restorative stretching and strengthening exercises. Treatment plans strive to help decrease recurrent joint irritations and muscle tensions by employing rehabilitative exercises, posture training, work ergonomics, relaxation techniques and nutritional consultation.

To Help Avoid Headaches

Treating the symptoms and not just the underlying cause of the symptoms often results in successful treatment. The following tips can help avoid headaches:

1. Avoid prolonged sitting postures. Get up and move for at least five to 10 minutes an hour.

2. Perform gentle stretches that take your neck and head through comfortable ranges of motion.

3. Stay hydrated.

4. Engage in some form of low-impact exercise routinely.

5. Eat clean. Avoid foods that trigger symptoms.

6. Get ample rest and practice good sleeping postures.

7. Have the spine checked and practice good posture in everyday life.

Ashleigh Muse is a doctor of chiropractic at Chiropractic Wellness Clinic, located at 12401 N. May Ave, Ste. 103, in Oklahoma City. For more information, call 405-842-3413 or visit OKCWellness.com. 

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