Headaches are experienced by most of the population at some point in their lives. For most they are minor and fleeting, and for others they pose an ongoing problem, having complex underlying causes. Types of headaches vary greatly and determining their root cause can be difficult. Having a greater understanding of how these types of head pain are categorised, can at least provide a starting point for minimising the impact headaches have on daily life.
One thing that is certain for all headaches, is that the pain is not felt from the brain. The brain receives pain signals from the nervous system, yet it is one organ of the body that does not have pain receptors. Rather it is the interactions between blood vessels and surrounding nerves in the structures in the head, neck or elsewhere, that send pain signals to the brain, which make a headache felt.
These pain sensations come in a variety of styles, so classifying types of headache is important in determining the appropriate treatment. There are two main categories of headaches, those being primary and secondary. The most common headaches are primary where the headache is the cause of the pain, as opposed to a secondary headache where there is an underlying medical condition.
Infection such as meningitis or a brain bleed due to trauma are examples life threatening secondary headaches. They can also derive from less severe conditions, for example medication overuse and issues relating to the structures of the head, such as the sinus region. Conditions of the head, neck, and even the the stomach or intestines, that are inflammation, trauma, illness or disease related, may also cause headaches.
As one of the most common ailments we experience, the symptoms and pain experienced will vary greatly. Although types of headaches are classified into groups, this is only a rough guide. There is much crossover regarding symptoms between one category and another, which makes headaches difficult to diagnose. This is where some deductive reasoning comes into play in differentiating one type of headache from another, especially considering there are over two hundred documented types of headaches.
Main types of headache
Tension, migraine or cluster are the main types of primary headaches. Migranes can be very debilitating, and often are accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and are often only felt on one side of the head. They can also be accompanied by an aura, which is a visual disturbance such as seeing sparkles or dots. There may also be feelings of anxiety, sensitivity to light or sensations that effect the limbs or stomach.
Unlike a migraine where these sensations can forewarn the onset of a headache, the cluster comes on suddenly, yet departs as quickly as it arrived. As they are one of the most painful headaches, it is fortunate that they are not as common. The name for this type of headache derives from them appearing as a cluster of short but intense pain, that occur in cycles over a period of a few weeks or months.
These characteristics help differentiate between a migraine, cluster and the most common of all headaches, which relates to tension. A tension headache is less severe and often caused by muscle contraction in the head and neck region. It presents as a tightness or pressure across the forehead, like a tight strap, with pain described as a dull ache. A sensitivity to loud noises, muscles aches on the side or back of the head, or even tenderness when touching the scalp, neck or shoulders, can be other indicators of this type of headache.
Developing tension headaches can be due to stress, anxiety or strain on the muscles over a long period of time, such as staring at a computer screen, especially one that has not been ergonomically positioned. Sitting for extended periods, lack of sleep, poor eating habits or chronic stress can all contribute to tension headaches.
So neck strain is one of many sources of a primary type tension headache. Yet the neck can also be the source of referred pain from a type of secondary headache, known as cervicogenic headaches, with ‘cervicogenic’ meaning originating from the neck. This upper most section of the spinal cord, known medically as the cervical spine, also involves the connected muscle, tendon and nerve structures that surround the neck and head region.
As cervicogenic headaches can refer pain to the head rather than being felt in the neck, it can sometimes times be hard to differentiate them from other types of secondary headaches. The names of these secondary headaches are prolific, but often have descriptors preceding the word ‘headache’ that indicate the root cause, for example ‘caffeine’, ‘pregnancy’ or ‘medication overuse’. For other types of secondary headaches, determining less obvious causes is something that can be assisted with the help of both the patient, and the health professionals involved.
Head pain and deductive reasoning
Sometimes the headaches we experience can be explained by a simple cause and effect. Overindulging in wine, staring at a screen for too long or lacking hydration are all self apparent causes for a basic headache. Then in hindsight, avoiding these triggers can then be the best prevention.
Some causes though will require a little more detective work, and a diary can be very helpful for when the headache is evaluated in a consultation. This record should contain a history of the headaches, with a date, a start and finish time, along with any other symptoms that accompany the pain, such as a fever, an upset stomach or the location of muscular aches. A description of the type of pain, such as ‘throbbing’ or ‘sharp’ can be added, as well as the pain severity on a scale of one to ten, ten being to the point of being incapacitated.
Further detail can be added to the diary such as foods or liquids consumed, including medication or supplements being taken. Quality of sleep, physical or emotional stressors at home or work, daily activities and conversely time spent at a desk inactive, are also important in pinpointing any potential triggers.
Even with these records, primary headaches are more difficult to tackle compared to secondary headaches, as determining the root cause of migraines and cluster headaches is often unclear. However when a headache is due to tension or referred pain from bone or soft tissue of the neck, physiotherapy treatment can offer some assistance.
Headaches relating to physiotherapy
Determining whether a headache is originating from the neck region, may or may not be obvious as symptoms for each type of headache overlap. For example a tension headache and a cervicogenic headache can both be accompanied by pain in the scalp, neck and shoulders.
How a headache differs may help in its diagnosis as to which type of headache is being experienced. For example a cervicogenic headache may be felt at the back of the head, the top of the skull, forehead, temple or behind the eye, as opposed to a tension headache where a band like pressure is felt across the forehead, back or sides of the head.
Unlike a tension headache a direct connection with the neck may not be experienced with a cervicogenic headache, instead there may be feelings of dizziness, nausea or poor concentration. Either of these headaches could start or be increased in severity by head movement or a prolonged posture, and a reduced range of motion of the neck may also be an indicator.
The underlying cause of a cervicogenic headache can either be a problem with the vertebrae immediately below the skull or the soft tissues of the neck. It could also be due to a strain or injury, and even long term conditions such as degenerative disc disease of the neck’s vertebrae.
To make matters more complex, what appears to be a cervicogenic headache, may in fact be occipital neuralgia. This is when the nerves that run from the top of the spinal cord and up through the scalp, become inflamed or damaged. Regardless of the type of headache, a physical examination provides a starting point from which further investigation may involve X-rays, scans and imaging to provide a clearer view of the neck’s structures. If nerve pain is experienced as part of the headache, a nerve block injection may be organised where appropriate, to help diagnose the cause and treat the condition.
Treatment of neck related headaches
Any neck treatment is a delicate matter because of the complexity of its structure. The vertebrae of spine at this point are smaller than those lower down the back, and so support of the head relies on a complex layering of muscles. Muscles closest to the spine are shorter, typically connecting one bone of the spine to another, while further away from the spine, muscles are generally broader and longer, spanning more joints and connecting more parts of the body. As such any of these can be injured as can the connective tissues, such as ligaments and tendons. Further to this the cartilage that assists in the smooth action of the neck can degenerate, as can the joints through arthritis which can lead to headaches and neck pain.
The complex interaction of nerves and bone joints at the junction of the upper spine and skull provides multiple points of potential injury as well. Nerve compression can cause inflammation and pain, whilst the upper spinal vertebrae are susceptible to compression and movement injuries such as bone spurs or a bulged disc, that can in turn impinge nerves. Thankfully nerve pain from the spine can be mapped, as general areas of the skin are mostly supplied by a specific nerve, that can be traced back to its root in a spinal segment. For example the second and third vertebrae of the cervical spine cover the areas or ‘dermatomes’ on the back half of the head. So head pain felt in these areas may provide an indicator to damage within the second or third vertebrae.
With physiotherapy, an assessment can help differentiate which type of headache is being experienced, and where appropriate, treatment can be very effective in managing headaches of a neck related origin. A physiotherapist can assess the joints of your neck, associated muscle and nerve structures, to identify any abnormalities. Along with the diary, any previous trauma to the neck region, such as whiplash, can also be taken into consideration.
Depending on the specific presentation and symptoms of neck related headaches, physiotherapy management may include joint or soft tissue mobilisation and exercise. Joint mobilisation can be used to help unlock or loosen stiff vertebrae, whilst dry needling, massage and the prescription of strengthening exercises can address tight or weak muscles, and restore stability to the neck area. A physiotherapist can also look at posture and general ergonomic improvements, as these can have a significant impact on headache development and its recurrence.
Ongoing management can involve postural advice and correction, which could include an ergonomic assessment or general advice regarding the setup of your work place. To compliment the hands on therapy and exercise prescription provided by a physiotherapist, stress and tension management may also include assistance in seeking out relaxation techniques or taking up classes such as yoga, that incorporate meditation.
Short term Flare ups
For short term flare ups a hot or cold pack can be used until your next appointment. The use of over the counter pain medication should be in moderation, for example less than three days a week, and preferably after advice from your physiotherapist or doctor. Too much medication can cause what is known as a ‘rebound headache’. This is where medication is taken to cope with the head pain, that reappears after an analgesic or painkiller used for a headache, wears off. So paradoxically the headache is the result of withdrawal from the very drug, that is supposed to stop the head pain.
Ultimately treatment for a headache should lead to self management through understanding of the stressors that initiate a headache. Broader lifestyle changes such as a balanced diet, regular sleep and exercise can also have a positive influence of the recurrence, duration and intensity of a headache, be that neck related or otherwise.
Falls cause 2/3rds of deaths due to unintentional injury in the elderly, which is the 5th leading cause of death of people over 65 years of age.
A fall by an elderly person can be defined as “a situation in which the older adult falls to the ground or is found lying on the ground” or “any unintended contact with a supporting surface, such as a chair, counter or wall”. (Shumway-Cook & Woollacott 2017)
We have your health in mind, and the prevention of such an adverse event, in our best interest and priority. We have decided to write a blog post to provide you with information to help minimise your risk of falling and increase your chances to lead a fit and healthy aging process.
The following list presents risk factors that are relevant to individual factors that increase the chance of falling:
History of falling
Walk with a limp
Poor balance (feel wobbly when walking)
Use of a walking aid (e.g. walking stick or frame)
Poor cognition (e.g. memory/ ability to problem solve)
Age greater than 80 years old
Are any of the symptoms listed above relevant to you?
It is difficult to attribute ageing as the sole reason for the development of the traits listed above, as older adults of the same age can demonstrate physical function ranging from physically elite to entirely dependent on others for all activities of daily living. However, there are some common trends of declining function to do with the neuromuscular system which occur in older adults, and although age may not be the main cause for these changes in the systems of postural control, it is likely, increasing age has a detrimental effect.
The aspects of the systems of postural control potentially detrimentally affected by age include:
Range of motion
Static balance (ability to remain stable when you are not moving)
Dynamic balance (ability to remain stable with movement)
Reactive balance control (ability to sequence movement, time muscle activation and adapt to changing tasks and environmental demands
Anticipatory balance control (the ability to stabilise the body before performing a movement)
Sensation (the ability to detect change in the external environment through vision, hearing, touch, ability to sense vibration, and proprioception, or the ability to sense where your body is in space)
It is also necessary to comment on the loss of bone density associated with increased age (>50 years old). A loss of bone density increases your risk of fracture when falling and is something everyone can and should actively work to minimise.
Our Physiotherapists are pleased to guide you and minimise your risk of falling. Therefore, we have developed a very simple home exercise program for all readers, using equipment all should have access to, to enable you to take action to reduce your risk of developing risk factors of falling and consequently your overall risk of falling, immediately!!:
Sit to stand (to increase muscle strength)
Sitting upright in a chair
Lean forward with hands on chair
Push through arms and heels keeping back straight
Squeeze your buttocks to stand as tall as possible
Repeat 15 squats
Perform 3 x daily
Thoracic extension (to increase range of motion)
Sitting on a chair which has a high back
Place a rolled towel horizontally behind your shoulder blades
Place both hands behind your neck and interlock your fingers
Touch elbows together
Bend backward to a comfortable position and hold for 30seconds
Perform 3 x daily
SLS (to increase static postural control)
Standing next to a stable object
Place one hand on the stable object
Lift one leg off of the floor to form a L-shape
If you are confident and safe, take your hand off of the chair
Hold for 30 seconds
Repeat on the opposite leg
Perform 3 x daily
SLS – Eyes closed (to enhance sensation especially proprioception)
As above, however once stable, close your eyes and hold for 30 seconds
Tandem stance (to increase static postural control)
Standing next to a stable object
Place one hand on the stable object
Place one foot directly in front of the other, so that your toes of the back foot are touching the heel of the front foot, forming in a straight line
If you are confident and safe, take your hand off of the chair
Hold for 30 seconds
Repeat with the opposite leg in front
Perform 3 x daily
Tandem walking (to increase dynamic postural control)
Continue to get into the position as above, however, continue walking – like you are walking on a tightrope! (We recommend alongside the kitchen bench for safety precautions)
30 minutes of walking daily (to increase bone density, dynamic postural control anticipatory balance and importantly cardiovascular fitness – or heart and lung health!!)
This program is very basic and does not cover all of the aspects of postural control. Please make an appointment with one of our physiotherapists to extend your exercise program, so that we can make it more tailored to your needs and more interesting. We will use modern, exciting equipment and more fun movements!!
Finally, the following listed items are external factors that also increase one’s likelihood of falling. They are known as secondary factors and are easily controlled:
Clutter in the home
Please take a moment to consider how you can minimise your risk of falling through controlling these listed items, for example placing non-slip mats in the shower, reducing clutter in frequently used walkways, having a bedside lamp to use when going to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
We hope you have found this blog helpful and please do call us for any questions or comments.
Chapter 9 Shumway-Cook, A & Woollacott MH 2017, ‘Aging and Postural Control’, in M Nobel (ed.)Motor Control: Translating Research into Clinical Practice, 5th edition, Wolters Kluwer, Philadelphia, pp. 206- 228.
By Vanessa Service, Physiotherapist
What does my vestibular system do?
Your vestibular system’s job is to process sensory information that is required to control balance and eye movements. This means that information from the inner ear, the visual system, and from the muscles and joints is analysed by the brain. Integrating this information allows you to1:
– Maintain clear sight while you move your head,
– Figure out the orientation of your head in space in relation to gravity,
– Identify how fast and in which direction your are moving, and
– Make fast and automatic adjustments to your posture so you can maintain balance (stay in your desired position).
In other words, your vestibular system coordinates your movement with your balance, allowing you to navigate through and adapt to the world. It is this process that allows you to walk down the sidewalk, to step off a curb, to sit down and stand up again and to turn your head while walking. Anytime your head moves through space you’re depending on your vestibular system.
What are vestibular disorders and what are the symptoms?
If the vestibular system encounters disease or injury, such as a viral infection or head trauma, the result may be a vestibular disorder. However, aging, some medications, and genetic or environmental factors may also cause vestibular conditions.
Symptoms of damage to the vestibular system may include:
– Vertigo (a sense of the world spinning around you)
– Dizziness (feeling lightheaded or floating/rocking in space)
– Imbalance and special disorientation (stumbling, staggering, drifting to one side while walking)
– Difficulty with changes in walking surfaces
– Tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears)
– Discomfort in busy visual environments (such as the grocery store) or when looking at screens/television
Examples of vestibular disorders include:
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo or BPPV (a common condition where loose debris or “crystals” collect in a part of the inner ear)
- Vestibular neuritis or labyrinthitis.
- Migraine associated vertigo
- Endolymphatic hydrops
- Acoustic neuroma
- Meniere’s disease
How can a vestibular physiotherapist help?
The effect of a vestibular condition on a person’s life can be profound. Dizziness and balance problems are often a barrier to activities of daily living, to independence, and to engaging with the community. This negative impact on daily function and socialization may also contribute to anxiety and depression. As such, appropriate management of vestibular conditions is an essential component to improving quality of life for individuals and families affected by vestibular disorders.
A vestibular therapist will interview you about the history of your symptoms and perform a series of vestibular, balance, and visual tests. Treatment will depend on what is found in the assessment. For example, if you are diagnosed with BPPV, your therapist will perform a manoeuvre to reposition the associated crystals. Other vestibular disorders are treated with specific exercises and strategies that your vestibular therapist will teach you and help you progress through to reach your specific goals.
Although for most people a vestibular disorder is permanent, an exercise based plan can be designed to reduce dizziness, vertigo, and balance and gaze stability problems1. This is made possible by your brain’s incredible ability to adapt its other systems in order to effectively compensate for an improperly functioning vestibular system. Vestibular rehabilitation is a non-invasive and drug free intervention that helps to promote and maximize the amount of compensation that occurs. Current research supports the use of vestibular rehabilitation in the management of vestibular conditions2, demonstrating reduced dizziness, balance issues, and increased independence with regard to activities of daily living 3. Additionally, no adverse effects associated with vestibular rehabilitation have been reported2. As such, vestibular rehabilitation can provide a pathway to improved quality of life for those living with a vestibular condition.
1. About Vestibular Disorders (n.d) Retrieved from https://vestibular.org/understanding-vestibular-disorder
2. Hillier SL et al., Vestibular rehabilitation for unilateral peripheral vestibular dysfunction, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 3, 2011.
3. Cohen HS, Kimball KT Increased independence and decreased vertigo after vestibular rehabilitation. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg 2003 Jan;128(1):60-70
Some reflections on concussion from the author below. We can help if you do have concussion.
A Carolina Panthers player left the Super Bowl and was found to have a concussion.
By David L. Katz
Fortunately for me and the others gathered at the Katz home, we enjoyed a fabulous, Cuisinicity.com meal for the Big Game. No surprise there; my wife is the culinary genius behind the site.
Thank goodness for the wonderful dinner, because the game itself was rather disappointing. There was, I trust my fellow spectators will agree, an unusual bumper crop of penalties, some egregiously bad calls by the referees, some truly strange mistakes by players and a disquieting bounty of poor sportsmanship into the bargain. Congratulations to the Broncos and Peyton just the same, but seriously, weird game.
Alas, it also featured an announcement all fans of the game should now know is a reason for a collective wince: concussion protocol. Corey Brown, of the Carolina Panthers, left the game after a head injury, underwent neurological evaluation and was found to have a concussion.
I trust everyone now knows the ominous implications of that kind of injury if repeated periodically over the course of a career. The media attention to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, is considerable and rising. The movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith, raises the profile further. I highly recommend the movie if you haven’t seen it, by the way. It is very well done, and beautifully acted, and entertaining even as it educates.
I have no particular expertise in CTE beyond any doctor’s basic understanding of it, and others have said plenty already. If you are interested, as every football fan should be, and certainly as every parent of a child inclined to play football must be, the relevant information is readily available. I will take the opportunity to make a different point, about the cultural malleability of “normal,” and thus, “acceptable.”
While I have no claim to the football-fan hall of fame, I like the game as much as the next guy. I am wondering more and more, though, if my entertainment is worth the price the players are paying.
Football is part of our culture, and thus normal. We might thus think that if it has occasional consequences, those, too, are normal. That may make them seem acceptable. But that’s the real danger here: complacency. We can perhaps only see it looking across cultures, rather than from corner to corner within the box that is our own.
Consider, for instance, the Gladiatorial Games of Roman times. Those were, infamously, contests to the death, whether between people, or people and wild, half-starved animals. The only vague approximations of any such barbaric entertainment in the modern world are, so far as I know, bull fighting, and the generally illegal contests between fighting dogs or roosters. There is no longer any mainstream interest in watching bloody death for entertainment.
But that’s simply because sensibilities and culture have evolved. The Romans were people just like us. Their society, too, was made up of mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles. They, too, knew love and compassion. But they cheered while watching young men, literally, kill one another. In their culture, it was normal, and thus acceptable; but I trust we agree history has reached a different verdict.
I happen to be a fan of both the late Heath Ledger, and Paul Bettany, and was thus predisposed to love the movie “A Knight’s Tale.” I’m no movie critic – I can’t say whether or not it’s a great movie – I can only say I like it.
The movie is especially noteworthy for how it handles anachronism. More than once, it features period elements, like music, and then transitions them to the modern analog, such as a rousing rendition of “The Boys Are Back in Town” by Thin Lizzy. More memorable still is a scene at a dance. Heath Ledger’s character is dancing with his love interest in the stylized manner of medieval folk dance. The music then transitions to the late, great David Bowie – “Golden Years,” to be exact – and the dancing keeps pace, morphing into what one would expect, more or less, in any given club on any given Saturday.
The director, I think, was telling us something important: The old-fashioned music and dance of medieval times would not have felt old-fashioned then. It was, simply, the music and dance of its day. It was normal. Showing medieval folk dancing to a modern audience says: this was an old-fashioned party. The director substituted “current” music and dance to show us how it felt to the participants. It was current and normal then, and no matter how it feels to us now, that’s how it would have felt to them.
That’s relevant to football. We are not willing to entertain ourselves by watching young men bash one another’s heads in with maces, as the Romans did. But we do entertain ourselves as young men bash their helmeted heads into one another repeatedly over a span of years, with all-too-often calamitous consequences.
Our gridiron heroes are latter-day gladiators. And their house – the house of football – inspires almost religious devotion in our culture. But that may be only because it is part of our culture. Imagine if football did not yet exist, and we were thinking of introducing it, and knew about CTE from the start. Would we add such a game and such a liability to our cultural entertainments?
The one-time editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, and later Medscape, Dr. George Lundberg, reflected along similar lines in the New York Times recently. He discusses cultural evolution over a much shorter period than the Middle Ages to now, noting a marked change in his personal – and our societal – enthusiasm for the brutalities of boxing. Both the sport and its following have changed dramatically in recent years, and he conjectures that football is in that same queue.
My principal mission here is to point out the inevitability of culturally induced blindness to the unacceptable elements of what is currently normal. We live in a time of epidemic obesity and its complications in our children, yet continue to market multicolored marshmallows to them as “part of a complete breakfast.” This is absurd, and history will judge us accordingly, but it’s normal now – and so we overlook the hypocrisy. Cultures around the world justify practices as heinous as female genital mutilation. What passes for “normal” is self-defining, and to some extent, self-perpetuating.
Until, that is, we evolve beyond it. Looking back, what was normal yesterday often proves repulsive and contemptible today.
We speak routinely about “thinking outside the box,” but when the box is culture, that is much easier said than done. Everything we know is inside the box, as are we. The contents of the box at any given time are normal.
History turns the years into a ladder. Out of the box we all climb, into a bigger box presumably, as we gain the perspective of altitude, and roll our eyes at the mess we’ve left behind.
I love watching football. The Romans presumably loved their gladiatorial games. Both are normal in context. That doesn’t guarantee that either is right.
For the sake of today’s players, and our sons inclined to take their places, I hope we reform the game of football sooner than later. It’s a great game, but not when paid for with brains scrambled, and lives cut short.
In general, we need to recognize how readily we follow the gospel of any given culture telling us what’s normal. We need to recognize that normal is simply what we do now, and that it isn’t necessarily right. Perhaps the true measure of cultural enlightenment is how ably we judge ourselves in real time as history is sure to do in the fullness of time.