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Headaches: Don’t Suffer in Silence

A surprisingly large number of the people that I see think it is normal to have headaches regularly and that they are just part of everyday life. However, there is often no need to suffer like this.

What’s in a name?

There are many different types of headaches and the diagnosis of what type of headache you are experiencing defines the treatment you need to get rid of it. However headaches with different causes often have similar symptoms which can lead to confusion about treatment.

A tension headache is the type most of us will be familiar with however even the International Headache Society1 (who are the experts in this field!) admit that migraines and tension headaches are difficult to tell apart. For example nausea, a symptom often thought to be the sole remit of migraines can also occur in chronic tension headaches… hence the confusion mentioned earlier!

Could your Headache be coming from your neck?

Recent research suggests that tension headaches may be caused by oversensitive muscles in the neck, which then refer pain to the head.2 Indeed the neck can also be responsible for another type of headache called the ‘cervicogenic headache’.

Luckily these two headaches are easier to differentiate as one causes generalised vice-like pain, the other pain over one eye, but in both cases the headache starts in the neck. Therefore unless you deal with the source in the neck, the headache is unlikely to go away.

What can you do about them?

Firstly you need to pin down what type of headache it is. I would always recommend a visit to your GP to rule out any rare, medical cause but otherwise any health professional that specialises in musculoskeletal disorders (such as an osteopath) can help you work this out. Once the headache is identified you can start some self-help!

If you have a migraine, try to work out your triggers and avoid them. Common triggers include drinking red wine, skipping meals, exposure to flashing lights, sleep deprivation and stress.

If your headache is coming from your neck, a few simple exercises may resolve it fairly quickly.

Keep Moving: Sitting for long periods of time without moving your head and neck, especially at the computer, results in reduced blood supply to the muscles of your neck so not enough oxygen and fuel (glucose) gets to these areas. So get up and move around regularly in order to pump another cycle of fresh blood into these muscles.

Exercises: If you feel a headache coming on try doing a couple of simple exercises and stretches to help the muscles and joints in your neck. Firstly, keeping your back straight and your shoulders relaxed gently tuck your chin in towards your throat, stretching the back of your neck. Then gently turn your head and neck so that your chin moves over your shoulder. Take care that you do not arch your neck when you are doing this.

Finally, do not suffer in silence. If you regularly get headaches the key is to see a professional. It may be easier to get rid of them than you think.

1. Tension-Type Headache: Introduction. International Headache Society.
2. Fernández-de-Las-Peñas C. What do we know about chronic tension-type headaches? Discov Med 2009 Dec;8:232-6.