“Tension headaches” are often talked about and we see a lot of patients with these headaches. In our diagnosis of these conditions, about eighty five percent of all headaches arise from the neck, or cervical spine, which refers pain into the head through the nerves which go to both areas. Neck problems cause head pain because some of the nerves which come from the spinal cord have branches which go to the upper neck joints and other branches which spread over the back of the head, with still others going to the front of the head. When one area is sore the brain interprets the pain as coming from all the areas the nerve branches go to.
CAUSES OF TENSION HEADACHES
Patients who have “Tension Headaches” or “stress headaches’’, are often very busy and have work related problems, a tough boss, urgent deadlines, problems with managing work flow and they often have trouble sleeping because of work problems and their worries. This causes the patient to be mentally and emotionally stressed and their relationships at work and with their families suffer.
They develop a headache which they cannot shake and they feel helpless, tired, tense, anxious and in pain. We have seen many cases where the headaches have continued for weeks and frequently kept recurring, sometimes over many years.
It is important to understand that a Tension Headache is due to “physical tension” in the tissues, often from a poor working position and the damage it has caused, not the other mental “tensions” listed above. Once full neck movement has been restored with treatment, the tissues have healed and the postural strains have been removed, patients often cope better with the other aspects of their lives. This is where Physiotherapy can help by breaking the vicious “Physical Tension” cycle. It is better to think of these as “structural headaches”.
Our neck is made of seven vertebrae stacked one above another. They support the head and they are joined together at the front by discs and at the back by facet joints. When we bend forward, the vertebra above tilts and slides forward, compressing the disc and stretching the facet joints which join the back of the vertebrae. When we bend backward, the disc compression is reduced at the front and the facet joints are compressed at the back. The junction of the first vertebra and the head does not have a disc and the joints there are particularly susceptible to leaning forward which causes the weight of the head to strain the joints, ligaments and muscles as gravity causes a shearing force as the head slides downward.
The neck muscles are often blamed as the cause of pain but this is rarely the whole story. Muscle pain often develops as the muscles contract to prevent further damage, as they protect the primary underlying structures. This pain is secondary to the underlying pathology and when the muscles are massaged, given acupuncture, etc, there is temporary relief but the pain will always comes back as the muscles resume their protective bracing. The most common sources of primary pain are the facet joints and their ligaments in the upper neck and the discs in the lower levels of the neck.
A facet joint strain is much like an ankle sprain, strained by excessive stretching or compressive forces. The joint ligaments, joint lining and even the joint surfaces can be damaged.
In the upper neck, facet joint strains typically occur during excessive bending or twisting movements and may follow trauma such as a car accident causing whiplash but generally, Tension Headaches occur with prolonged forces such as slouching, keying and reading.
There is often a previous history of pain coming and going as the damaged area became inflamed, was treated and settled for a while but as the underlying problem still remained, the pain flared up repeatedly every time it was strained. This type of injury, although often chronic, responds very well to specific Physiotherapy treatment.
There are many other sources of headaches and neck pain including arthritis, crush fractures and various disease processes. Your Physiotherapist will advise you should a more serious condition be suspected.
SYMPTOMS OF TENSION HEADACHES
Symptoms of “Tension Headaches” arising in the neck, are always affected by movement of the head and neck. This is important to understand. Symptoms are sometimes severe and may be sudden in onset but also may be mild and of gradual onset. There are other serious conditions which can produce headaches. If you have severe headache symptoms which are not affected by movement and a recent history of fever or nausea, you must consult a doctor urgently.
Facet joints, discs, muscles and other structures are affected by our neck positions and movements and when damaged, will respond very well to Physiotherapy treatment.
DIAGNOSIS OF TENSION HEADACHES
“Tension Headaches” often appear complex and require a full understanding of the history and a comprehensive physical examination. It is important for your Physiotherapist to establish a specific and accurate diagnosis to direct the choice of treatment. In some cases, the pain may arise from several tissues and these coexisting pathologies are treated individually as each is identified. Where the Physiotherapist requires further information or management may require injections or surgery, the appropriate x-rays, scans and a referral will be arranged.
TENSION HEADACHE RELIEF
Some of these cases will temporarily respond to a general non-specific treatment such as bed rest, ice and anti-inflammatories, however Musculoskeletal Physiotherapists have developed diagnostic skills and treatment techniques, targeted to stopping “Tension Headaches”. We will identify the reasons for the development of the pain and advise strategies to promote healing and to prevent further damage.
Specific techniques are chosen to correct the structural and mechanical problems. Among many choices, treatment may include joint mobilisation, stretching, ice, strengthening and education.
When normal function has been achieved, the inflammation and pain has settled and the structures have healed, using your new strategies will reduce the possibility of the headaches ever recurring. We use this approach to reduce or stop chronic pain. While we have the choice to manipulate or “click” joints, those with ongoing pain will seldom benefit from repeated “adjustment”. This is because our tissues are elastic and the benefit of the quick stretch of manipulation is lost as the tissues tighten up again. Potentially dangerous “adjustments” of this type have little long term benefit and can lead to an unhealthy dependence on the provider. Your Physiotherapist will choose a safe and appropriate treatment for you.
PROGNOSIS OF TENSION HEADACHES
Physiotherapy for “Tension Headaches” can provide outstanding results but it is a process, not magic. The damage which produces “Tension Headaches” takes time to develop and time to repair and heal. You will understand there are often several interacting factors to deal with and your compliance is necessary.
Feeling dizzy? You Could Have a Vestibular Disorder
Do you experience dizziness? Perhaps when rolling into or over in bed, or turning your head to one side?
Dizziness can be more than dehydration, a big night out, or a compulsion to spin in circles on your office chair. It can be a symptom of asymmetry in your body’s sensory systems.
The most common condition that causes dizziness is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or BPPV. The brain has three main mechanisms for perceiving how we interact with the environment around us. These are the visual, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems.
The visual system is self-explanatory. The proprioceptive system is a network of nerves in all of your muscles and joints that relay information about the position of those muscles and joints back to the brain. It is how you can close your eyes and still accurately position your arms and legs in different poses.
The vestibular system is located in your inner ear and is used to identify the position and movement of the head in space. This is the system commonly linked to dizziness and vertigo.
The vestibular system is made up of three perpendicular fluid filled canals in each ear, which relate roughly to the planes of movement.
These canals each have sensory nerves at one end that are made up of crystals resting on fine hairs. When you turn your head, the fluid moves through the canals and pushes on the crystals. This causes the hairs to move and stimulates the nerves.
Your response in each ear should be equal and opposite, and work in tandem with your visual and proprioceptive systems. If things are not working in tandem, then dizziness, vertigo (room spinning), or nausea may result.
Have you ever felt nauseated in a car, or on a boat? This is because your vestibular system recognises that your head is moving but according to your eyes, you are still or moving a different way.
Someone may have suggested looking out the window or finding the horizon. This is great advice as fixating on something which the car or boat is moving relative to, provides a visual reference point and reduces or eliminates the disagreement between the visual and vestibular system.
In patients suffering BPPV, a similar disagreement occurs but it is completely internal. It occurs when crystals in one ear canal become dislodged from the hairs and drift down into the canal. This can happen as a result of trauma but is just as frequently unrelated to any incident.
When the head is turned, the nerve stimulation in one ear is different to the other and a combination of dizziness, vertigo, and nausea can result.
Generally, this resolves in seconds, or in more severe cases last up to two minutes. Usually only one canal will be affected at a time so symptoms are commonly worse to one side, and occur most severely in a single plane of movement.
If you are dizzy due to asymmetry, then your physiotherapist can assess and treat it. Assessment of specific movements can isolate which ear and which canal is causing the problem and treatment involves techniques designed to use gravity and inertia to relocate the crystals back to where they belong at the end of the canal.
NOTE: If you are suffering from severe, sudden onset headache, or persistent dizziness, double vision or nausea that seem unrelated to any particular movement then consult a medical doctor immediately.
Figures suggest that around 80% of people experience back pain at some time in their lives. Back and neck pain can be very debilitating so how a physiotherapist manages back pain treatment is essential to secure a positive result. Back pain can be localised in and around the spine, but can also be experienced as sciatic pain. Headaches and migraines are also commonly caused by neck issues.
Exercise is important
Exercise is gaining recognition as playing a vital role in the long term recovery and in preventing many musculoskeletal injuries, including back and neck pain. Exercise compliments physiotherapy treatment management and achieve long term results when trying to prevent and rehabilitate pain and injury by correcting the underlying causes, not just seeking to stop the pain.
The underlying biomechanics that cause back and neck pain
Most back pain is caused by excessive loading placed on muscles, joints, ligaments, spinal discs, etc. due to poor core stability. Core stability is traditionally defined as; an individual’s strength and control of their lower back, pelvic and abdominal muscles in order to maintain optimal postural alignment of the lower back and pelvis.
However it is important to also include the shoulder girdle and rib cage, as the lower back and pelvis do not operate in isolation, and muscles throughout the torso must act in a coordinated manner in order to maintain optimal postural alignment and also to initiate biomechanically efficient upper and lower limb movements.
A good analogy to help understand core stability is to consider how a tent is supported. A tent is held upright by a rigid tent pole. The bones of your spine act like a tent pole, however your spine is not rigid, so it relies on the support of ligaments and deep stabilising muscles to hold adjacent vertebrae and to help maintain optimal postural alignment i.e. stabilise the spine. If the muscles that stabilise the spine, pelvis, rib cage and shoulder are weak or are poorly controlled then your spine will tend to collapse, just like a tent pole made from a piece of spaghetti. There are many muscles that attach directly onto the spine, pelvis, rib cage and shoulders. These muscles move our torso and limbs and also assist with stabilising the core, acting in a similar way that guide ropes help to keep the tent pole upright. If a tent had guide ropes that pulled more on one side than on the opposite side then the tent would lean, so too, if the muscles on one side pulled more than the other due to imbalances in strength and/ or flexibility, or these muscles compensate for weak stabiliser muscles then they will pull your body into a poor postural alignment. One very important difference to note is that a tent only requires “static stability” i.e. support to maintain a single stationary position, whereas, the human body must have “dynamic stability” to provide support and maintain optimal alignment of their core and limbs whilst moving in many different ways to participate in sport, work and daily living activities.
How a physiotherapist corrects biomechanical faults
Physiotherapists conduct a comprehensive physical assessment and then use this information to design a personalised exercise program to improve posture/ biomechanics, core stability, flexibility, functional strength, cardiovascular fitness, balance and coordination. Programs focus on achieving long term results by correcting the underlying biomechanics causes of your pain, improving the strength of muscles that support your back and neck and teaching efficient movement for your specific sport, work or daily living activities. Expert supervision by an Physiotherapist ensures that each client completes the exercises with good technique to prevent further injury, to ensure that the exercises are effective, and also to ensure that progressions are made at safe and appropriate times.
As your cold-weather footwear makes the seasonal migration from the back of your closet to replace summer’s flip flops and bare feet, don’t underestimate the benefits of padding around naked from the ankles down.
Barefoot activities can greatly improve balance and posture and prevent common injuries like shin splints, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, bursitis, and tendonitis in the Achilles tendon, according to Patrick McKeon, a professor in Ithaca College’s School of Health Sciences and Human Performance.
The small, often overlooked muscles in the feet that play a vital but underappreciated role in movement and stability. Their role is similar to that of the core muscles in the abdomen.
“If you say ‘core stability,’ everyone sucks in their bellybutton,” he said. Part of the reason why is about appearance, but it’s also because a strong core is associated with good fitness. The comparison between feet and abs is intentional on McKeon’s part; he wants people to take the health of their “foot core” just as seriously.
The foot core feedback loop
McKeon describes a feedback cycle between the larger “extrinsic” muscles of the foot and leg, the smaller “intrinsic” muscles of the foot, and the neural connections that send information from those muscle sets to the brain.
“Those interactions become a very powerful tool for us,” he said. When that feedback loop is broken, though, it can lead to the overuse injuries that plague many an athlete and weekend warrior alike.
Shoes are the chief culprit of that breakdown, according to McKeon. “When you put a big sole underneath, you put a big dampening effect on that information. There’s a missing link that connects the body with the environment,” he said.
Muscles serve as the primary absorbers of force for the body. Without the nuanced information provided by the small muscles of the foot, the larger muscles over-compensate and over-exert past the point of exhaustion and the natural ability to repair. When the extrinsic muscles are no longer able to absorb the forces of activity, those forces are instead transferred to the bones, tendons, and ligaments, which leads to overuse injuries.
It’s not that McKeon is opposed to footwear. “Some shoes are very good, from the standpoint of providing support. But the consequence of that support, about losing information from the foot, is what we see the effects of [in overuse injuries].”
Strengthening the foot core
The simplest way to reintroduce the feedback provided by the small muscles of the foot is to shed footwear when possible. McKeon says activities like Pilates, yoga, martial arts, some types of dance, etc. are especially beneficial.
“Anything that has to deal with changing postures and using the forces that derive from the interaction with the body and the ground [is great for developing foot core strength],” he said.
McKeon also described the short-foot exercise, which targets the small muscles by squeezing the ball of the foot back toward the heel. It’s a subtle motion, and the toes shouldn’t curl when performing it. The exercise can be done anywhere while seated or standing, though he recommends first working with an athletic trainer or physical therapist to get familiar with the movement.
He notes the exercise seems to have especially positive results for patients suffering from ankle sprain, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis. It’s even been shown to improve the strain suffered by individuals with flat feet.
The payoff could be more than just physical, as there could be financial savings. With strong feet, McKeon suggests that — depending on the activity — consumers may not need to invest hundreds of dollars in slick, well-marketed athletic sneakers (though he doesn’t recommend going for the cheapest of cheap sneakers, either). People with a strong foot core can actively rely on the foot to provide proper support, rather than passively relying on the shoes alone.
“You might be able to get a $50 pair of basketball shoes that don’t have the typical support that you’d expect. Because you have strong feet, you’re just using the shoes to protect the feet and grip the ground,” he said.
The easiest way to get started on strengthening the small muscles of the foot, though, is to kick off your shoes in indoor environments.
“The more people can go barefoot, such as at home or the office, is a really good thing,” McKeon said.
Ithaca College. “Going barefoot: Strong ‘foot core’ could prevent plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and other common injuries.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 November 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151117181929