headache pain

How The Neck Can Cause Headaches

As a chiropractor, one of my favorite conditions to treat are headaches.  I am always surprised by the number of patients that I see that get headaches on a consistent basis.  It is not uncommon for patients to tell me that they get headaches three times a week, or even on a daily basis!  

When I begin to explain how their headaches can be coming from their neck, patients are often shocked.  They usually attribute their headaches to stress, a lack of caffeine or water, or even refer to them as “normal headaches” that everyone gets.  While stress and dehydration can lead to headaches, I find that far more commonly the cause of their headaches is often found in their neck.  In this blog post, I’ll discuss why your neck may be causing your headaches, and how chiropractic can help.  

Atlas or C1

In practice, I have found that there are usually three areas in your neck that may lead to headaches.  The first area I always check on a patient that complains of headaches is the first vertebra in the neck, known as atlas or C1.  This vertebra gets its name from Greek mythology, comparing it to the Greek god Atlas that carried the world on his shoulders.  Like the Greek god, the first vertebra of your spine supports your head.  

Atlas is not shaped like the other vertebra of your spine.  Instead, it is shaped like a ring, and has no vertebral body like other areas of the spine. In addition to supporting the head, atlas also connects the skull to the rest of your spine.  Atlas is such an important area of the spine because the brain stem extends through the center of the ring before becoming the spinal cord.  Due to this, there are some chiropractors that only adjust this vertebra, instead of focusing on the entire spine.

When a patient comes to my office with headaches, I often find that when I palpate their atlas, one side feels more prominent than the other.  This is usually an indication that C1 has become misaligned.  On a x-ray, when viewing the neck from the side, I commonly see that the ring has started to tilt to one side or the other.  When this happens, pressure can be put on the spinal nerves that exit of either side of C1.  These nerves run from the top of your neck, around the back of your head and to the forehead.  Pressure along these nerves can lead to headaches, and this is a common presentation for people suffering from tension, or cervicogenic headaches.

The Occiput

The second area that I check on patients who suffer from headaches is the occiput.  The occiput is the bone at the base of your skull in the back of your head.  In addition to helping protect the brain, like atlas, the occiput has a hole that allows for passage of the brain stem and spinal cord.  Although it is not technically part of the spine, the occiput forms the atlanto-occipital joint with the atlas, therefore it is a movable joint that can be adjusted.  

When the occiput becomes misaligned, it can cause headaches that start at the back of the head. These can be very similar to headaches caused by a misalignment of C1, so it is important to be able to distinguish whether a misalignment of the occiput or atlas is causing headaches.  

One way that I can often tell the difference between headaches coming from the occiput and atlas is by evaluating a patient’s posture.  If the occiput has become misaligned, it will often cause the head to tilt slightly to one side or the other.  This misalignment can cause pressure on the nerves that exit between the occiput and the atlas and may lead to headaches.

Lower Cervical Vertebra

The third and final area that I check on patients when I am looking for the cause of their headaches is the vertebra in the lower cervical spine, or the bottom portion of your neck.  Although the nerves that come from this portion of the neck do not run to the head, misalignments in these areas can still lead to headaches.  

A common misconception is that chiropractic adjustments only remove nerve pressure, however this is an oversimplification.  Muscles attach to each vertebra, and when a vertebra moves out of its normal alignment it can cause these muscles to be strained or pulled.  When this happens, the muscles of the neck can become very tight, which can cause neck pain.

However, the muscles that attach to this portion of your neck run from your shoulder to the base of your skull.  When they become tight, they can pull on the base of your the skull and lead to headaches as well.

How To Treat These Problems

When it comes to misalignments of the spine, whether it be a misalignment of the occiput, atlas or lower cervical spine, the main treatment that I use to correct these issues is the chiropractic adjustment.  The goal of the adjustment is to properly realign the areas that have shifted out of its normal position, most often by using my hands.  By getting the spine back into its proper position, I am able to remove nerve pressure and alleviate muscle tightness or spasms that have led to headaches.

Although the adjustment is the most important type of treatment needed to correct these misalignments, it is also important for the patient to do their “homework” in order to get better as fast as possible and stay better for a long time.  This “homework” usually consists of posture exercises, a foam roller or lacrosse ball, and a neck wedge.  Without the patient doing some work at home, it will make it harder for them to achieve the results they are looking for.

Posture exercises are designed to help not only improve your posture, but also help strengthen the adjustments that we are making in the office.  Poor posture likely played a role into causing headaches in the first place, so it is essential that that also be corrected to make long term change in the spine.  The neck wedge also helps improve posture by helping to restore the normal cervical curve of the neck.  By helping improve the curve of your neck, we are able to relax muscles that have been pulled as a result of the loss of curvature.  Finally, a foam roller or lacrosse ball is great at breaking down knots and loosening muscles.  All of these are important to make sure that we are able to correct the areas of your neck that have been causing headaches.  

As you can see, a number of different areas from the base of your skull to the bottom of your neck can lead to headaches.  By properly realigning these areas with chiropractic care, as well as relaxing muscles and improving posture at home, we are able to not only get your neck pain and headaches feeling better quickly, but we are also able to correct the problem to make sure that they don’t come back in the future.

About the Author Dr. Kevin Wafer

Dr. Kevin Wafer was born and raised in Spring, TX. Since his mother worked as a chiropractic assistant, he spent much of his childhood in a chiropractic clinic and was adjusted for the first time at only 3 months of age. Click Here To Read Full Bio

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