People are often surprised when I tell them that their headaches may not be migraines. There is another, more common type of headache that feels very similar to migraine that it is often misdiagnosed. It’s called a cervicogenic headache, which simply means a headache that originates in the neck. This is also referred to as a neck headache.
In this case, chiropractic treatment can be an effective alternative to mind-numbing medication. But how do you know if you’re actually having cervicogenic headaches and not migraines? And more importantly, what can you do about them?
So How Do I Know If I’m Having A Migraine Headache, Anyway?
I see a lot of headache sufferers in my chiropractic clinic who present complaining of migraine, but when I outline the typical presentation of a migraine sufferer they find that they don’t necessarily fit the profile. So, let’s take a look at what the text books say about migraine headaches and the people who suffer from them:
Migraines typically come on early in life, often during preteen years, are more common in women than men, run in the family (thanks, mom), and often get better as you get older. Headache pain is usually present on one side of the head and can be preceded by a prodrome – a prodrome is a warning sign that a headache is coming such as dizziness or sensitivity to sound or light. Migraine headaches can come a few times a month and last from hours to several days, and may be brought on by any number of triggers such as hormone changes, stress, food additives and alcohol.
So What Is A Cervicogenic Headache?
I’m glad you asked. The word cervicogenic simply means that the headache is caused by the neck. The symptoms of cervicogenic headache are very similar to migraine: headaches are typically felt on one side of the head, and the pain can travel from the base of the skull to the temple and behind the eye on the same side. They may be accompanied by neck and shoulder pain and stiffness, visual disturbances, pounding and nausea just like migraine.
But unlike migraines, these headaches often begin later in life and can become more frequent (and more intense) as you get older. In my clinical experience, people who suffer these headaches can have a number of ‘migraine-like’ headaches per week, but can also have low-grade headaches on other days. In fact, people can become so used to having these low-grade headaches that they eventually learn to ignore them as a survival mechanism. Unfortunately, the bad headache days are much harder to ignore.
The good news is, a short course of conservative care, such as Chiropractic, Active Release Techniques, massage or acupuncture, can often give significant relief from these neck headaches. Even in the case of true migraine, conservative care can help limit the number of days you have headache, and decrease the intensity of the ones you do have.
So How Do I Know If My Headache Is Coming From My Neck?
Do you ever find yourself pushing on painful knots in your neck or shoulders when you have a headache? Does your neck stiffen up before or during a headache? Do you sit at a computer all day or have poor posture? Have your headaches become more frequent as you’ve gotten older? If you answered yes to any of these questions, chances are your neck is contributing to your headaches, and probably more than you realize.
Headaches caused by the neck can develop after an accident or injury, especially a whiplash injury, or as a result of repetitive stress from working at a computer, performing physical labor, or even poor posture. They are often accompanied by painful muscle knots, neck joint stiffness, and a loss of flexibility when moving your head in different directions. A thorough chiropractic examination can help pinpoint the specific problem areas, and when treatment is directed at improving joint and muscle function in those areas, headache pain often improves.
OK… I Read Your Stupid Blog And Still Have Migraines. Now What?
Ask any migraine sufferer and they can probably rattle off a list of headache triggers. But one that’s often missing from that list is pain and stiffness in the neck. Poor function in the joints and muscles of your neck can be a powerful trigger for migraine headaches. If you can improve the health of those joints and muscles, you can greatly influence how often that trigger sets off a headache. Plus your neck and shoulders will feel better. And who can’t use that?
Headache Relief – Conservative Treatment May Be Your Best Option
Although you can’t eliminate an inherited pre-disposition for migraine, you can reduce your headache triggers. The health and function of your neck is arguably the most important trigger, and addressing that can often make your migraines less intense and less frequent. And if you do have cervicogenic headaches? You just might eliminate them for good! Either way, it sure beats medication and hiding out in a dark room.
If headaches are sucking the fun out of your life, maybe it’s time to try something different.