Most likely, everyone reading this article has had a headache at one time or another. The American Headache Society reports that nearly 40% of the population suffers from episodic headaches each year while 3% have chronic tension-type headaches. The United States Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 29.5 million Americans experience migraines, but tension headaches are more common than migraines at a frequency of 5 to 1. Knowing the difference between the two is important, as the proper diagnosis can guide treatment in the right direction.
TENSION HEADACHES: These typically result in a steady ache and tightness located in the neck, particularly at the base of the skull, which can irritate the upper cervical nerve roots resulting in radiating pain and/or numbness into the head. At times, the pain can reach the eyes but often stops at the top of the head. Common triggers include stress, muscle strain, or anxiety.
MIGRAINE HEADACHES: Migraines are often much more intense, severe, and sometimes incapacitating. They usually remain on one side of the head and are associated with nausea and/or vomiting. An “aura”, or a pre-headache warning, often comes with symptoms such as a bright flashing light, ringing or noise in the ears, a visual floater, and more. For migraine headaches, there is often a strong family history, which indicates genetics may play a role in their origin.
There are many causes for headaches. Commonly, they include lack of sleep and/or stress and they can also result from a recent injury—such as a car accident, and/or a sports injury—especially when accompanied by a concussion.
Certain things can “trigger” a migraine including caffeine, chocolate, citrus fruits, cured meats, dehydration, depression, diet (skipping meals), dried fish, dried fruit, exercise (excessive), eyestrain, fatigue (extreme), food additives (nitrites, nitrates, MSG), lights (bright, flickering, glare), menstruation, some medications, noise, nuts, odors, onions, altered sleep, stress, watching TV, red wine/alcohol, weather, etc.
Posture is also a very important consideration. A forward head carriage is not only related to headaches, but also neck and back pain. We’ve previously pointed out that every inch (2.54 cm) the average 12 pound head (5.44 kg) shifts forwards adds an EXTRA ten pounds (4.5 kg) of load on the neck and upper back muscles to keep the head upright.
So, what can be done for people who suffer from headaches? First, research shows chiropractic care is highly effective for patients with both types of headaches. Spinal manipulation, deep tissue release techniques, and nutritional counseling are common approaches utilized by chiropractors. Patients are also advised to use some of these self-management strategies at home as part of their treatment plan: the use of ice, self-trigger point therapy, exercise (especially strengthening the deep neck flexors), and nutritional supplements.