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.
Are our devices giving us neck pain?
There are millions of people right now looking down at their smartphone or tablet. Do you ever stop to think about what this might be doing to your neck and upper back?
At Saanich Physiotherapy and Sports Clinic, we are seeing a huge increase in the amount of neck, upper back, shoulder and arm pain which is all related to posture when using devices. From texting on the smartphone to watching TV on the tablet in bed, we are all guilty in some way. And sadly, we are seeing more and more children coming in with these issues too.
Consider how much your head actually weighs. On average, it weighs 4.5-5kg. When sitting or standing upright, this weight is supported by the lower neck vertebrae, intervertebral discs, muscles and ligaments. When you then lean your head forward when looking at your smartphone, the relative weight of your head on your neck muscles can increase up to 27kg! Just by looking down at your phone, you can increase the force on your lower neck by 5 times!
When maintaining this position for a period of time, the muscles will fatigue and stop working, meaning that the force of your head is now being held up by small ligaments, the neck joints and the discs in the neck. It is no wonder people are having more and more neck pain.
The term “Text Neck” is becoming more commonly accepted as a diagnosis for neck pain caused by prolonged use of smartphones and tablets. If left untreated, this massive increase in force in the lower neck and lead to headaches, increased arching of the spine, general pain and tightness and arm pain from irritating nerves in the neck. It can also cause weakening of the muscles in the neck which can lead to ongoing pain, stiffness, headaches or arm pain in the future.
With the increase in children having smartphones and even the use of tablets in school, there are becoming more and more postural issues arising which is definitely a concern for ongoing and long term neck and upper back problems later in life.
Text Neck can be treated. Your Physiotherapist may use joint mobilizations, soft tissue massage, taping or even dry needling to help restore normal movement within the joints and muscles.
However, it is imperative that you strengthen the muscles in the neck and upper back to prevent long term issues. Your Physiotherapist will tailor a program for you to complete at home or might even recommend core conditioning or yoga classes for a supervised strengthening program.
If you, your children or another family member or friend are guilty of using their smartphone or tablet too much and are noticing pain or discomfort in their neck, upper back or arm make sure you book an assessment with your Physiotherapist sooner rather than later!
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
A blog by Amy Mathews Amos- See below
My symptoms started in January 2008, with deep pain in my bladder and the sense that I had to urinate constantly. I was given a diagnosis of interstitial cystitis, a chronic bladder condition with no known cure. But in the following months, pain spread to my thighs, knees, hips, buttocks, abdomen and back. By the time my condition was properly diagnosed three years later, I had seen two urogynecologists, three orthopedists, six physical therapists, two manual therapists, a rheumatologist, a neurologist, a chiropractor and a homeopath.
What was wrong? Something completely unexpected, given my symptoms: myofascial pain syndrome, a condition caused by muscle fibers that contract but don’t release. That constant contraction creates knots of taut muscle, or trigger points, that send pain throughout the body, even to parts that are perfectly healthy. Most doctors have never heard of myofascial pain syndrome and few know how to treat it.
In my case, trigger points in my pelvic floor — the bowl of muscle on the bottom of the pelvis — referred pain to my bladder. Points along my thighs pulled on my knee joints, creating sharp pain when I walked. Points in my hips, buttocks and abdomen threw my pelvis and lower spine out of alignment, pushing even more pain up my back. The pain was so severe at times that I could sit for only brief periods.
“Why didn’t anybody know this?” I asked my doctor, Timothy Taylor, soon after he correctly diagnosed the reason for my pain. “Because doctors don’t specialize in muscles,” he said. “It’s the forgotten organ.”
‘There’s no wire’
Most medical schools and physical therapy programs lack instruction in myofascial pain, in part because it involves referred pain, according to Robert Gerwin, an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University. Gerwin, who is also president of Pain and Rehabilitation Medicine in Bethesda, says that medicine has only recently come to understand this type of pain.
“I remember a long conversation with a neurosurgeon saying that [referred] pain is impossible because there’s no connection, there’s no wire, no string, no blood vessel, there’s no nerve, there’s no nothing connecting these two places,” Gerwin said. Of course, the surgeon was “not realizing that the mechanism of spread is through the spinal cord.”
Pain signals from taut muscle fibers travel to specific locations on the spinal cord that also receive signals from other parts of the body. Referred pain occurs when pain signals from muscles register in the nervous system as if they came from elsewhere.
Although physicians increasingly recognize referred pain today, diagnosis and treatment of myofascial pain often takes more time than most physicians can provide, according to Taylor. Practitioners need specific training to recognize trigger points. And they must examine and palpate patients carefully to identify and locate these taut bands of muscle fiber.
In a 2000 survey, more than 88 percent of pain specialists agreed that myofascial pain syndrome was a legitimate diagnosis, but they differed over the criteria for diagnosing it.
Norman Harden, the medical director of the Center for Pain Studies at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, conducted that survey. He believes that practitioners need clear, validated criteria for diagnosing myofascial pain and identifying effective treatments. He recently conducted another survey to determine if the level of recognition among pain specialists has changed. Preliminary results suggest it has not.
According to Gerwin, myofascial trigger points often cause or contribute to problems such as chronic back pain, headaches and pelvic pain. Trigger points can form anywhere in the body after an injury or if muscles brace against pain or trauma for a long period. They also can result from chronic overuse of muscles due to stress or to poor posture that puts constant pressure on muscles not designed to withstand it.
Taylor understands this as both a physician and a patient. His myofascial pain started in 2003 during his daily run. “I felt a sharp pain in my rear that felt just like when my brothers used to shoot me with our BB gun,” he recalled. He checked himself for signs of injury but found none, then limped home, assuming it was a strained muscle that would heal after a few days. It didn’t.
He sought treatment first from his general practitioner. He then went to a battery of specialists: neurologists, rheumatologists, orthopedic surgeons, osteopathic physicians, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists, and physical therapists.
Found it on the Internet
After three years, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist told him the source of his pain was his piriformis muscle, a pear-shaped muscle that runs diagonally across the buttocks. The doctor prescribed stretching and strengthening exercises to resolve it, but they only made things worse. Eventually, the pain reached down to Taylor’s knees, up to his head and out to his fingers on both sides of his body.
But he finally had a useful piece of information. He did an Internet search for “piriformis muscle” — a common spot for trigger points — and “myofascial pain syndrome” popped up. “I had been to the bone doctor and the joint doctor and the nerve doctor and the rehab doctor, and none of them had really examined my muscles in great detail,” he said. And none of them identified trigger points. Taylor has since changed his focus from radiology to working toward understanding, diagnosing and treating the condition. When I met him in 2011 he had established a practice that specializes in pain syndromes.
A popular treatment is dry needling, which sounds like exactly what it is: Tiny needles are inserted into the skin to stimulate a twitch response in the heart of a trigger point, releasing it. Although similar to acupuncture, dry needling focuses directly on trigger points rather than on the meridians, or energy fields, recognized by Chinese medicine. Usually, each trigger point requires several treatments before it relaxes substantially. Between sessions, patients treat themselves each day by pressing the points against a hard surface with simple tools such as tennis balls and holding for a minute or two. Treatment also addresses posture-related strains on muscles and metabolic factors such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies, low thyroid and hormonal imbalances that can contribute to trigger points.
Though a few studies have been done, they have not adequately demonstrated the effectiveness of treatments for trigger points, according to a 2009 review published in the European Journal of Pain. Researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth and the British Medical Acupuncture Society reported that only one of the seven studies they reviewed found dry needling to be effective in reducing pain. Four other studies found no difference between dry needling and placebo treatment, and the two remaining studies had contradictory results.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists recognizes dry needling as a legitimate treatment. The group maintains that research shows that dry needling reduces pain and muscle tension and helps muscles with trigger points return to normal. Other studies are underway. Jay Shah of the National Institutes of Health and Lynn Gerber and Siddartha Sikdar of George Mason University are using ultrasound imaging to examine how dry needling changes the physiology of trigger points after treatment.
Gerwin says that proper training in finding the trigger points can lead to consistency in diagnosing them. He and physical therapist Jan Dommerholt of Bethesda Physiocare run Myopain Seminars, which help physicians and physical therapists learn how to diagnose and treat trigger points.
According to Harden at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, without clearer diagnostic criteria accessible to general practitioners, experiences like mine will continue. “As awareness grows and doctors feel empowered to understand and make this diagnosis, then that endless and frustrating round of trying to find what I’ve got and what the answer is will stop,” he said.
Gerwin agrees that more research will help, but already he sees greater acceptance of trigger points in the medical community.
“I think the bottom line is simply that the
underlying pain physiology is understood now to explain why referred pain occurs, to understand why tenderness occurs,” he said. “And that explains a lot of what muscle pain is all about.”
In my case, through a combination of therapies, including dry needling, compression, stretching, postural changes and relaxation techniques, I feel much better. I no longer need dry needling, but I do need to practice the other techniques myself, regularly, to prevent trigger points from reforming or to release them myself when they do form.
Amy Mathews Amos, a science writer in Shepherdstown, W.V., blogs at amymathewsamos.com.