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.
Do you suffer “Chronic Pain”?
Do you feel misunderstood and frustrated?
Here at Saanich Physio we want you to remember, the concept developed by Mosely and Butler (2017): All pain is normal, all pain is a personal experience and all pain is real.
The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) has classified chronic pain as “pain that persists or recurs for more than three months” (which is longer than the expected healing time of soft tissue), with the exception of pain experienced after some surgeries and some types of traumatic injuries (International Association for the Study of Pain, 2016).
To understand chronic pain, we have to understand why we can have such intense, debilitating pain, when health professionals classify our tissues “normal”.
First we will explain a little bit about inflammation and the nervous system.
Inflammation is the body’s amazing, natural, healing process whereby blood flow to a site of injury is increased and chemicals are released into the area to start healing. Symptoms of inflammation include pain, redness, swelling and heat in the area.
The Nervous System
Nerves originate in our brain and spinal cord. There are two types of nerves.
Sensory nerves: Detectors which help us to understand what is going on around us and keep sending messages, or inputs, to the brain and spinal cord, to make us aware of our environment and inform us whether it is safe or potentially dangerous. Sensory neurons have input in to the brain and spinal cord.
Motor nerves: Action causers, which cause us to move, by activating appropriate muscles or glands to release appropriate hormones. They also cause the spark of thoughts, behaviours and beliefs. Motor nerves are responsible for causing our actions based upon the brain and spinal cords calculations and are outputs.
It is hard to believe that pain is actually generated in the brain and is an OUTPUT released when harm is detected.
Basicially, when danger is detected, the brain and/or spinal cord send pain to that area, so in turn we protect the threatened tissue by changing our behaviours or positions, for example by limping to reduce weight bearing on a potentially broken foot (Littlewood et al. 2013), or moving our hand away from a flame.
It highlights that danger detected by sensory nerves from both our environment and our tissue, are sent up the spinal cord to the brain. The brain and spinal cord assess the incoming signals and produce an appropriate output to adapt to remain as safe as possible.
The brain then interprets this information, and determines whether our tissues are in danger or not. If it suspects we are in danger, it produces an output depending on whether we need to protect ourselves or not e.g. movement away from danger, or feel pain in those tissues so that we stop using them.
There are three biological mechanisms that can cause an output of pain to be produced:
Nociception (the detection of danger): the exposure of tissues to harmful stimuli occurs. These stimuli can be: chemical, mechanical (overstretch or compression of tissue leading to damage) or thermal (tissue that is too hot or cold) (Smart 2012b).
Central sensitization: a dysfunction within the brain and spinal cord is occuring, so that safe, incoming signals are interpreted as harmful (Smart & Keith 2012)
Peripheral neuropathy: there is damage to the peripheral nerves themselves (all nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord) (Smart 2012a)
It is also important to understand that high stress has also been indicated to increase pain, delays recovery and increases risk of chronic pain development (Lentz et al. 2016).
The next fact is something commonly mistaken.
The amount of pain we feel rarely reflects how much tissue damage there really is (Moseley and Butler 2017).
Think about a paper cut, and how painful this can be. Compare this to cases where people have had their entire leg bitten off by a shark, and have not felt a thing. This is all due to the analysis by the brain and spinal cord of the situation and their believed best response to produce outputs that are most likely to protect the person and give them the best chance of surviving at that given time of detected danger.
Now we will discuss two different types of injury that can occur, both which cause significant pain, yet both which have very different mechanisms of reasons why pain is caused.
Pain reported by a person with a recently broken bone, usually relates well to the extent of the tissue damage and the dominant mechanism responsible for the pain output is nociceptive pain (danger detection through chemical and mechanical changes in the tissue).
MECHANISM – FRACTURE (NOCICEPTIVE PAIN)
Bone tissue breaks due to an inability to withstand the intensity, speed and direction of an applied force. It can be caused by trauma, stress, bone weakness or disease (Westerman & Scammell 2011). Trauma causes sensory nerves to detect a harmful change in shape of tissue, which sends danger signals to the brain and spinal cord. It also causes the release of chemicals that cause inflammation to occur – to kick-start the healing process (Birklein & Schmelz 2008). This sends further danger detector signals to the brain and spinal cord. The brain and spinal cord process the input, identifies threat and outputs pain.
On the other hand, the degree of pain reported in chronic tendinopathy, does not always relate well to the extent of peripheral tissue damage or pathology, and the dominant biological mechanism responsible for the pain output can be central sensitisation (safe, incoming signals becoming interpreted as harmful by the brain and spinal cord).
MECHANISM – CHRONIC TENDINOPATHY (CENTRAL SENSITISATION PAIN)
Chronic tendinopathy, is an umbrella term for a number of conditions, and refers to a combination of pain and impaired performance of a tendon, which have lasted longer than 3 months (Seitz et al. 2011).
Non-chronic (acute) tendinopathy occurs when there are mechanical changes to the tendon. They are caused by external or internal factors, or a combination of both. Externally, tendon compression occurs, while internally, degeneration occurs (Seitz et al. 2011), both result in inflammation. Therefore both mechanisms produce the detection of harm at the environment and tissues due to chemical and mechanical changes and send this input to the spinal cord and brain, which then outputs pain to the area.
Amazingly, evidence suggests people experiencing chronic tendinopathy can have minimal or no inflammatory cells in the painful tendons. This suggests there is another reason for their brain to produce an output of pain: an altered processing of input within the brain and spinal cord, so that a threat is still detected despite little tissue damage (Littlewood et al. 2013), this can be caused by a range of things, including previous experiences with pain.
For example, if you once had a back injury, and it was painful every time you bent forward, the central nervous system may now associate bending as dangerous and therefore outputs pain to that same area in your back to feel pain before any tissue damage can occur, as a prevention and protection strategy.
Due to the differences in nature of the pain experienced with both conditions, the management strategies for both of these conditions differs substantially.
If you found any of this information useful or intriguing and would like to learn more about your pain and you would like to make an appointment with one of our physiotherapists, contact us.
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Our spinal columns are made of twenty four vertebrae stacked one above another on the pelvis. 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 at 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. In the upper neck and thoracic areas we tend to have more facet joint strains and in the lower cervical spine and lumbar spine areas, disc injuries are more frequent. This is because our upper spine joints allow us to turn our heads to see, hear and smell, so they need mobility but do not support much weight. Our lumbar spine bears around half our body weight and as we move and sit, there are huge, sustained, compressive loads on our discs.
CAUSES OF BACK PAIN
Disc injuries are the most common cause of low back pain and can range in severity from a mild intermittent ache, to a severe pain where people cannot move. Disc injuries occur mainly during sudden loading such as when lifting, or during repetitive or prolonged bending forces such as when slouching, rowing, hockey and while cycling. They are often aggravated by coughing and running. A flexed posture during slouching, bending or lifting is a frequent cause of disc damage because of the huge leverage and compression forces caused by gravity pulling down on the mass of the upper body.
It is important to understand that damage from small disc injuries is cumulative if discs are damaged at a faster rate than they can heal and the damage will eventually increase until it becomes painful. Pain sensing nerves are only on the outside of the disc, so by the time there is even small pain of disc origin, the disc is already significantly damaged internally where there are no nerve endings to feel pain with.
There may be a previous history of pain coming and going as the damaged area has become inflamed, perhaps was rested or treated, settled for a while but as the underlying problem was not fixed, the pain has flared up repeatedly since. This type of disc injury responds very well to Physiotherapy treatment.
A marked disc injury causes the outer disc to bulge, stretching the outer disc nerves. In a more serious injury, the central disc gel known as the nucleus, can break through the outer disc and is known as a disc bulge, prolapse or extrusion.
Spinal muscles are often blamed as the cause of spinal pain but this is rarely the cause of the pain. Muscle pain may develop as the muscles contract to prevent further damage as they protect the primary underlying painful structures. This muscle pain is secondary to the underlying pathology and when the muscles are massaged, given acupuncture etc, there is temporary relief but the pain will often come back, as the muscles resume their protective bracing. Treatment must improve the structure and function in the tissues which the muscles are trying to protect. The most common sources of primary pain are the discs, facet joints and their ligaments.
There are four facet joints at the back of each vertebra, two attaching to the vertebra above and two attaching to the vertebra below. A facet joint strain is much like an ankle sprain and the joints can be strained by excessive stretching or compressive forces. The joint ligaments, joint lining and even the joint surfaces can be damaged and will then produce pain.
Facet joint sprains can occur during excessive bending but typically occur with backward, lifting or twisting movements. Trauma such as during a car accident or during repetitive or prolonged forces such as when slouching or bowling at cricket.
There are many other sources of back pain including arthritis, crush fractures and various disease processes. Your Physiotherapist will examine your back and advise you should further investigation be necessary.
SYMPTOMS OF BACK PAIN
Symptoms of structural back pain are always affected by movement. This is important to understand. Symptoms, usually pain but perhaps tingling and pins and needles, are often intense and may be sudden in onset but also may be mild and of gradual onset. There are other conditions which can produce back pain such as abdominal problems, ovarian cysts and intestinal issues. If you have symptoms in these areas which are not affected by movement, you must consult with your doctor. If you have chest, jaw or upper limb pain which is unaffected by movement, you must attend your doctor or hospital immediately.
Facet joints, discs, muscles and other structures are affected by our positions and movements. More minor problems produce central low back pain. With more damage, the pain may spread to both sides and with nerve irritation, the pain may spread down into the thigh or leg. As a general rule, disc pain is worse with bending, lifting and slouching and facet joint strains are worse twisting and bending backward or sideways. A severe disc problem is often worse with coughing or sneezing and on waking in the morning.
DIAGNOSIS OF BACK PAIN
Diagnosis of back injuries is complex and requires a full understanding of the onset 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 known as co-existing pathologies and each of these are treated as they are identified. Where the Physiotherapist requires further information or the management may require injections or surgery, the appropriate x-rays, scans and a referral will be arranged.
UPPER BACK AND LOWER BACK PAIN RELIEF
Eighty percent of adults will experience severe spinal pain at some time in their life. Much of this pain is called non-specific low back pain and is treated with generic non-specific treatment. This type of treatment often fails to provide lasting relief. However, Musculoskeletal Physiotherapists have developed specific diagnostic skills and specific treatment techniques, targeted to specific structures. We identify the structure and cause of the pain producing damage and develop specific advice and strategies to prevent further damage and promote healing.
Specific techniques are chosen to correct the structural and mechanical problems. Among many choices, treatment may include joint mobilisation, stretching, ice, strengthening and education. As normal tissue structure and function returns, there is a reduction in the inflammation and the pain will subside.
When normal movement has been achieved, the inflammation has settled and the structures have healed, your new strategies will reduce the possibility of the problem recurring. We use this specific approach to reduce or stop chronic pain.
While we have the choice to manipulate, adjust or click joints, patients with ongoing pain will seldom benefit from repeating these techniques. This is because our tissues are elastic and the benefit of the quick stretch of manipulation is lost, as the elastic tissues tighten and shorten again. Adjustments of this type have little long term benefit and often lead to an unhealthy dependence on the provider. Your Physiotherapist will choose a safer and more appropriate treatment for you.
PROGNOSIS OF BACK PAIN
Physiotherapy for back pain can provide outstanding results but it is a process, not magic. The damage which produces pain in a back takes time to develop and also time to repair and heal. You will understand there are often several interacting factors to deal with and patient compliance is necessary.