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.
The Piriformis Muscle
Do you have pain in your buttock? Low Back Pain? Your Piriformis muscle may be the culprit.
Your Piriformis muscle is a small, deep, buttock muscle. Many of us have a tight piriformis muscle which can cause pain issues in your gluteal/buttock region as it passes right over your sciatic nerve. When your piriformis becomes tight it can compress your sciatic nerve and start creating all kinds of issues. Many of us sit at computer desks for many hours on most days. This essentially means that you sit on your sciatic nerve, gluteal muscles and piriformis muscle every day. If your nerve is calm and not irritated, that feels ok but if it is stirred up from a tight piriformis muscle your gluteal and buttock region can become extremely painful.
Symptoms of piriformis muscle syndrome
If your piriformis is irritated you may feel pain in your buttock region, pain down your leg, numbness and tingling traveling into your leg and foot, pain on sitting, standing and squatting down.
Our therapists determine if your sciatic nerve pain is originating from your piriformis muscle or from your spine. If your piriformis muscle is the culprit, you will feel like your pain originates in your buttock regions, not your spine. Another distinction between the two origins of your pain is that with a tight piriformis muscle you usually won’t have muscle weakness in the affected lower limb side whereas you if your pain originates from your spine you may get symptoms down the affected limb side.
Some men have had a sciatic nerve irritation caused or aggravated by sitting on their wallet in their back pocket. “Note– Never sit on your wallet” Piriformis muscle pain doesn’t have to be isolated to the muscle itself. You can have SIJ (sacroiliac joint) pain and wider spread gluteal muscle pain too.
Piriformis Muscle Treatment
Your physiotherapist will first identify the cause of your pain and symptoms. This may include a biomechanical assessment of certain movements involving your lower limbs and pelvis. We will then target hands-on treatment to release your tight Piriformis muscle. We will also assess and treat any tightness or symptoms around your other gluteal muscles and lower back if they are contributing to your pain issues. Treatment techniques that may be helpful include IMS Dry needling and Shockwave Therapy.
What is it?
Hip bursitis is a fairly common condition, and involves inflammation of the bursae around the hip joint. The bursa are small fluid-filled sacs, and are present to reduce the friction between tendons and the bone and ensure that everything is able to move smoothly. However they can become inflamed and painful with overuse, trauma and incorrect muscle use or weakness. There are many, however the bursitis we most commonly see is the Trochanteric Hip Bursitis. The trochanteric bursa cushions the outside of the hip against the gluteal muscles (especially gluteal maximus) and the Iliotibial Band (ITB). It is the most commonly injured as these are muscles very commonly used and therefore give the bursa a lot of work!
What are the causes?
As mentioned earlier, there are a few key causes of bursitis:
Overuse (or muscles around the area) and repetitive stress – eg. With frequent running, jumping, squatting
Trauma – e.g. a fall directly onto the outside of the hip (where there isn’t much padding)
Incorrect muscle use and muscle patterns, causing altered biomechanics of the lower limb – this can also include weakness of the core muscles
Weakness in the deeper gluteal muscles (Gluteus Medius and Minimus), and tightness in the Iliotibial Band (a band that runs down the outside of the thigh). As a result of the weakness in the deeper gluteal muscles, the gluteus maximus (biggest gluteal muscle) is forced to work more than it should, and so places more pressure in the bursa, which over time causes irritation and inflammation, and pain.
Interestingly, there are recent studies to suggest that hip bursitis does not often occur on its own, and that there is commonly some element of Gluteal pathology – especially tendinopathy of the Gluteus Medius (the main stabilising glute muscle). This may be the causative reason for weakness in this area, however it is not known yet as to which comes first – the bursitis, or the tendinopathy.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Commonly, sufferers will have a sharp pain on the side of their hip (worst directly over the bony outer part of the hip, and often tender to touch). This pain may extend down towards the knee, or even upwards towards the lower back. In fact, as the lower back, hip and knee are so closely linked, it is not uncommon to see problems in all areas along with hip bursitis, including pain, stiffness and restricted movement of these areas.
Sometimes there will also be a visible swelling over the outside of the hip, or even just the feeling of swelling.
There is often difficulty lying down on the side (due to the direct pressure), or even on the unaffected side (due to the stretch). This may cause trouble with sleeping.
Walking is also aggravating, especially first thing in the morning, or after a busy day. A limp may be present. There may also be pain with sitting cross-legged, or rising out of a chair after sitting for a while.
What are the treatment options?
There are several options when it comes to improving pain and keeping the bursitis away.
Physiotherapy – this is highly successful for treating trochanteric bursitis. Initially, treatment will involve techniques to reduce the pain and swelling (eg. Ultrasound, ice, gentle massage, acupuncture, taping). Following this, your physiotherapist will aim to return full range of motion of the affected hip (and also lower back, knee if affected), correct any muscle imbalances around the hip and restore full function of the stabilising hip and core muscles, and work to eliminate any excess tightness that may be contributing to the problem. Due to the nature of trochanteric bursitis, and the danger of it recurring, a long-term program may be required.
Ice – due to the inflammatory nature of trochanteric bursitis. Ice for 15 minutes at least once per day, and also after aggravating activities
Cortisone Injections – this involves injecting a corticosteroid (anti-inflammatory) along with a local anaesthetic into the bursa in order to settle the inflammation and stimulate healing. A guided injection (usually via ultrasound) is preferred as it will assist with needle placement. Cortisone injections can be very helpful, however repeat injections have been shown affect tendon health detrimentally – it would be wise to discuss side effects with your GP.
What can I do to help?
If sleeping is a problem, it can be improved in the short term with a pillow between the legs, to level out the hips when laying on the unaffected side.
Driving can be aided by sitting slightly higher (so your hips are not as bent). This may involve lifting the seat (in newer cars), or simply sitting on a pillow. Do make sure you can still reach the pedals & drive safely however!
There are several helpful exercises that will assist in recovery and strengthening. These will ideally be performed after the initial healing phase is completed (that is, when the pain and swelling have diminished). These exercises should be performed within your comfort levels, without causing pain.
Seated gluteal stretch
Sit on edge of chair, cross one foot over the other knee, SIT UP TALL, and lean forwards
There should be a comfortable stretch in the buttocks, or even down the side/back of the leg
Hold 20 seconds, repeat 3 times each leg
Lying gluteal stretch (Single knee to chest)
Lying on your back, slowly bring one knee up towards the opposite shoulder as far as comfortable.
You should feel a gentle, comfortable stretch in your lower back, or buttocks
Hold for 10 seconds, repeat 5 times
Start on your back with knees bent (no pillow is best)
Slowly roll pelvis/hips off floor, followed by one vertebrae at a time
Aim to lower down, one vertebrae at a time
Try 10 repetitions
Prone Knee Bend
Start by lying on your tummy, feel the front of your hips on the floor.
Bend one knee to 90 degrees and then slowly lift thigh off floor (the front of your hips should stay firmly on the floor)
Once lifted, straighten your leg in the air, then slowly lower your straight leg
Repeat 10 times each leg
Start lying on your side with knees bent slightly. Make sure your shoulders, hips and feet are in a straight line.
Keep your feet together, back still and gently open your knees apart.
Repeat 10+ times on each leg, or until fatigue
* This exercise is especially helpful as it targets the Gluteus Medius
As above, make sure your body is aligned well.
This time, lift your feet up, keep your lower knee on the floor and lift your knees apart.
Repeat 10+ times on each leg, or until fatigue
Sports Injury Prevention for Baby Boomers
While there may be no single fountain of youth, you can slow down the aging process by staying physically active. Regular exercise enhances muscle and joint function, keeps bones strong, and decreases your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Here are some tips developed by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine and American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons that can help you exercise safely.
Always take time to warm up and stretch before physical activity. Research studies have shown that cold muscles are more prone to injury. Warm up with jumping jacks, stationary cycling or running or walking in place for 3 to 5 minutes. Then slowly and gently stretch, holding each stretch for 30 seconds. Do not stretch cold muscles.
Just like warming up, it is important to cool down. Gentle stretching after physical activity is very important to prepare your body for the next time you exercise. It will make recovery from exercise easier.
Consistent Exercise Program
Avoid the “weekend warrior” syndrome. Compressing your exercise into 2 days sets you up for trouble and does not increase your fitness level. Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. If you are truly pressed for time, you can break it up into 10-minute chunks. Remember that moderate physical activity can include walking the dog, working in the garden, playing with the kids and taking the stairs instead of an elevator. Parking on the far end of a parking lot will increase the distance you have to walk between your car and your destination.
Take sports lessons. Whether you are a beginner or have been playing a sport for a long time, lessons are a worthwhile investment. Proper form and instruction reduce the chance of developing an “overuse” injury like tendinitis or a stress fracture.
Lessons at varying levels of play for many sports are offered by local park districts and athletic clubs.
Invest in good equipment. Select the proper shoes for your sport and use them only for that sport. When the treads start to look worn or the shoes are no longer as supportive, it is time to replace them.
Listen to Your Body
As you age, you may find that you are not as flexible as you once were or that you cannot tolerate the same types of activities that you did years ago. While no one is happy about getting older, you will be able to prevent injury by modifying your activity to accommodate your body’s needs.
Use the Ten Percent Rule
When changing your activity level, increase it in increments of no more than 10% per week. If you normally walk 2 miles a day and want to increase your fitness level, do not try to suddenly walk 4 miles. Slowly build up to more miles each week until you reach your higher goal. When strength training, use the 10% rule as your guide and increase your weights gradually.
Develop a balanced fitness program that incorporates cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and flexibility. In addition to providing a total body workout, a balanced program will keep you from getting bored and lessen your chances of injury.
Add activities and new exercises cautiously. Whether you have been sedentary or are in good physical shape, do not try to take on too many activities at one time. It is best to add no more than one or two new activities per workout.
If you have or have had a sports or orthopaedic injury like tendinitis, arthritis, a stress fracture, or low back pain, consult your Physiotherapist who can help design a fitness routine to promote wellness and minimize the chance of injury.