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.
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
Does running accelerate the development of osteoarthritis?
There are so many misconceptions about running and how bad it can be for your joints. You may have heard many friends and family members comment on this and they may have even tried to convince you to stop running and go swimming instead. Here is what the scientific research tells us so far:
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a musculoskeletal condition that involves degeneration of the joints and impact during weightbearing exercise such as running and may contribute to joint loads. There is very little evidence however, that running causes OA in the knees or hips. One study reported in 1985 by Sohn and Micheli compared incidence of hip and knee pain and surgery over 25 years in 504 former cross-country runners. Only 0.8% of the runners needed surgery for OA in this time and the researchers concluded that moderate running (25.4 miles/week on average) was not associated with increased incidence of OA.
In another smaller study of 35 older runners and 38 controls with a mean age of 63 years, researchers looked at progression of OA over 5 years in the hands, lumbar spine and knees (Lane et al. 1993) . They used questionnaires and x-rays as measurement tools. In a span of 5 years, both groups had some participants who developed OA- but found that running did not increase the rate of OA in the knees. They reported that the 12% risk of developing knee OA in their group could be attributed to aging and not to running. In 2008, a group of researchers reported results from a longitudinal study in which 45 long distance runners and 53 non-runners were followed for 21 years. Assessment of their knee X-Rays, revealed that runners did not have a higher risk of developing OA than the non-running control group. They did note however, that the subjects with worse OA on x-ray also had higher BMI (Body Mass Index) and some early arthritic change in their knees at the outset of the study.
Is it better to walk than to run?
It is a common belief that it must be better to walk than to run to protect your joints. In a recent study comparing the effects of running and walking on the development of OA and hip replacement risk, the incidence of hip OA was 2.6% in the running group, compared with 4.7% in the walking group (Williams et al 2013). The percentage of walkers who eventually required a hip replacement was 0.7%, while in the running group, it was lower at 0.3%. Although the incidence is small, the authors suggest the chance of runners developing OA of the hip is less than walkers.
In the same study, Williams and colleagues reinforced that running actually helped keep middle-age weight gain down. As excess weight may correlate with increased risk of developing OA, running may reduce the risks of OA. The relationship between bodyweight and knee OA has been well-established in scientific studies, so running for fitness and keeping your weight under control is much less likely to wear out your knees than being inactive and carrying excess weight.
Is there a limit?
Recent studies have shown that we should be doing 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily to prevent cardiovascular disease and diabetes. But with running, researchers still have not established the exact dosage of runners that has optimal health effects. Hansen and colleagues’ review of the evidence to date reported that the current literature is inconclusive about the possible relationship about running volume and development of OA but suggested that physiotherapists can help runners by correcting gait abnormalities, treating injuries appropriately and encouraging them to keep the BMI down.
We still do not know how much is “too much” for our joints. However, we do know that with age, we expect degenerative changes to occur in the joints whether we run or not. Osteoarthritis is just as common as getting grey hair. The important thing is that we keep the joints as happy and healthy as possible.
How do you start running?
If you are not a runner and would like to start running, walking would be a good way to start and then work your way up to short running intervals and then longer intervals as you improve your fitness and allow time for your body to adapt. Therefore, running in general is not bad for the joints. It does not seem to increase our risk of developing OA in the hips and knees. But the way you run, the way you train and how fast you change your running frequency and distance may play a role in future injuries of the joints.
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!