How do you typically treat a headache? Do you see a headache as something that’s “normal” and don’t do anything about it? Have what you have tried to treat headaches in the past worked? Over my years in practice, I have heard all kinds of answers to these questions. In this blog post, we will discuss ways the typical person attempts to treat their headaches and if these treatments work or don’t when it comes to getting rid of headaches.
Are Headaches Normal?
Before covering possible treatment options, I first want to address something that I hear on a regular basis when it comes to headaches. During a consultation with a patient, I always ask if they get headaches, whether that is their chief complaint or not. I have been shocked by the number of times I hear patients tell me that they get headaches, “but that’s normal.” Many times these patients get headaches up to 3 times per week, and don’t see this as a problem!
I think these patients often think that just because headaches are common, that they are normal. A headache is a reaction to something not being right in your body. Common causes that lead to headaches include inflammation, dehydration, or an allergic reaction. Something is causing these headaches, therefore they are not “normal.”
I think far too often people think that just because they know someone else who has the same symptoms as they do that they are normal. However, if you are getting headaches, especially if they are occurring on a regular basis, this is a sign that something isn’t right in your body, and it needs to be fixed. Now that we know that headaches aren’t normal, what are common treatments that people use to try to cure their headaches?
The Medical Model
The most common attempt that I hear from headache patients in my office is over the counter medication. Excedrin, Tylenol, Advil. When someone gets a headache one of these is usually the first thing that they reach for. While these medications, might dull or even take a headache away, does it stop them from coming back in the future? No, that’s why many of these patients take the medications on a daily basis.
If over the counter medications haven’t been successful, the next step is usually a visit to your family doctor for prescription medication. However, like the OTC drugs, this is only a short term solution. It may get you feeling ok for the time being, but it isn’t fixing the cause of the headache.
That’s because medications treat symptoms, not the root cause. The symptom is the fire alarm, it’s not the fire. Imagine that your house is currently on fire. The fire department comes with their hoses, and then proceeds to cut the cord on the fire alarm and leave. We do the same thing when we take medications. Symptoms are the sign that something isn’t right in our body, yet we take drugs to mask these warning signs every day, even multiple times per day.
When prescription medications don’t work, your family doctor refers you to a neurologist or headache specialist. They order multiple, expensive MRIs, only to find that “we don’t see anything wrong.” And then they tell just to keep taking the medications, it is an endless cycle. Medications are usually not the solution when it comes to headaches.
The Chiropractic Model
Unlike the medical model, when treating headaches, instead of treating the symptoms, a chiropractor will try to instead find what is causing the headaches in the first place. When treating someone with headaches, I focus my examination on the patient’s neck. In my experience, I have found that this is where the cause of many headaches can be located.
The first area I check on a patient during this examination is the first vertebra in the neck, also known as C1 or atlas. I have found that a misalignment of this bone can commonly lead to headaches. If this area is misaligned, when I palpate this area during the exam, a patient will often complain that one side is more tender than the other. Many times, the patient will then comment that their headaches tend to be more to the side of increased tenderness. This is a strong indication, that a misalignment of C1 is leading to their headaches. When C1 shifts out of its normal position, it can put pressure on the nerves that exit on either side of the bone. These nerves wrap around the back of the head and go to the forehead, which is one of the most common presentations for headaches.
The next area I check are the vertebrae lower in the neck. If one of these bones becomes misaligned, a patient will often complain of pain in their neck or upper trapezius muscles as well. During an exam, the muscles at the top of their shoulder will often be tender to the touch. When these bones become misaligned, they can begin to pull on the muscles that run from your neck to the base of your skull. Tight muscles in this area are another common cause for headaches.
Whether the misalignment that is causing your headaches is located in the upper or lower portion of your neck, the chiropractic treatment is basically the same. Once the misaligned vertebra has been identified, I make a chiropractic adjustment to this area to properly align the spine. By properly aligning the misaligned vertebra, we are able to relieve nerve pressure and muscle tension that leads to headaches. By correcting these misalignments, we are also able to fix the problem and keep headaches from returning, instead of just treating the symptoms.
In addition to the adjustment, I also recommend posture exercises to help correct any postural problems that may have contributed to headaches in the first place. A neck wedge is also helpful to help restore the normal cervical curve that is lost due to bad posture, and also causes increased muscle tension in the neck. Foam rollers and lacrosse balls are also great to help loosen muscles and break up knots. All of these are important to make sure your spine is as healthy as possible, and to keep headaches from coming back in the future. These exercises can be found on our website at: https://www.corechiropractic.net/level1/
Now that you know that headaches are not normal and what treatments are successful in treating them, what will you do when you get your next headache? Hopefully instead of reaching for the bottle of Excedrin yet again, you will try to correct the cause of the problem with chiropractic care.