How Does Chiropractic Help Headaches?
By Dr. Doug
Headaches are considered a major cause of lost time at work or school, with large impacts on people’s quality of life. It is also a burden in terms of costs for medication. It is estimated that 14% of people worldwide suffer from migraines yearly. Remember, many people with migraines or headaches don’t just feel them once a year… they are often chronic and recurring pain.
Anatomically, the part of the brain that deals with pain in the head and face is the Trigeminal nerve. It is one of the so called cranial nerves, which begin just below the level of the brain and deal with all sensation in the head and face, movement of facial and optical muscles, some regulation of the autonomic nervous system (which controls our heart rate and digestion), and some neck movement. The trigeminal nerve’s nucleus is located in the brain stem and upper cervical spinal cord. Due to its location, there is a “confluence of afferents” or nerves that carry information back toward the brain. Because the trigeminal spinal nucleus is located in the same area as spinal nerves for the upper cervical spine, pain and tightness in the upper neck can cause signals to “overflow” into the area of the spinal trigeminal nerve which the brain interprets as pain in the head and face.
That sounds complicated. To give an example, tension headaches (like a band around the head) or headaches due to whiplash are 2-10 times higher in people who have neck pain to start with. The neck pain signals traveling toward the spine “leak” into the area of the spinal trigemninal nerve, which sends those signals to nerves related to head and facial areas. The brain interprets these signals as head pain, and voila, a headache. Because the pain is starting from the area of the neck, your chiropractor can work on neck muscles and adjust the cervical spine and help relieve your headache. With some work, people may be able to reduce their headaches almost completely. Other people may find the need to have periodic treatment to control their headaches.
Research on headache treatment has shown Spinal Manipulative Therapy (Chiropractic) to be an effective treatment, providing superior effects for pain intensity, frequency and disability, when compared to other manual therapies. Other studies have shown that people who have chronic headaches for more than 3 months and 5 or more headaches within the week before the study began have a reduction of 1 day of headache after 4 weeks of treatment. This study also showed a “linear dose response,” meaning that the more treatment given, the more reduction in the number of days of headaches people experienced.
Even with this great record for treating headaches, no one has time to run to the Chiropractor every time they have a headache. Adding some simple yet targeted stretching exercises further helps to reduce the chance of getting that next headache.
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