What is The Cause of Headaches and What Can You Do about Them?

The Origin of Headaches

Whether you feel a pounding in the temples, a dull throb at the back of your head or a shooting pain with noise and bright light; a headache can be a disabling and painful occurrence, especially if it strikes often.

However, many people don't realize that a large proportion of headaches are generated by the neck, upper back and associated muscles (such as the ones in the base of our skull and in our jaw). When we are physically or emotionally stressed (for example, when we maintain poor postures for long periods in front of the computer), the joints and muscles in our upper body tighten and develop increased tension. This, in turn, leads to poor or restricted movement patterns in the upper back and neck region, irritating the nerves – which in turn send pain signals to our brains to let us know there’s a problem.

The most common problem areas are the C2/3 facet joints and sub-occipital muscles, which have been shown to refer pain to the base of the skull and around the forehead into the eyes and temples (see Figure 1).

Fig. 1

Figure 1. This diagram is showing a group of muscles at the base of the skull called the suboccipital triangle. When this group of muscles becomes tight due to physical stressors such as poor posture and prolonged sitting at the computer, it causes pressure on the nerve that passes through this triangle and the result is pain in the head (depicted in this diagram with red dots).

“However, many people don't realize that a large proportion of headaches are generated by the neck, upper back and associated muscles (such as the ones in the base of our skull and in our jaw).”

The ideal posture is for your head to be stacked vertically on your neck, but people who are stressed or have poor posture from working on the computer for prolonged periods of time tend to tilt their heads forward. Studies on posture have shown that every degree of forward tilt increases the load placed through your upper neck by roughly 10% - and it’s not uncommon for people who are suffering from headaches to have up to 10 degrees of forward head tilt (see Figure 2).

posture Figure 2. Example of shoulder and neck forward posture on the left and proper posture on the right.

neck painProlonged sitting at the computer can cause muscle fatigue, tightness and lead to headaches.

Other physical and emotional stressors that can lead to headaches:

  • skipping meals
  • becoming dehydrated
  • being under a lot of emotional stress at work or at home
  • having a minor head injury (for example, due to a fall or car accident)
  • using the computer or watching TV for a long time
  • vision problems
  • menstruation
  • experiencing changes in hormone levels
  • taking a long trip in a car or bus
  • listening to really loud music
  • smoking
  • smelling strong odors such as perfume, smoke, fumes, or a new car or carpet
  • drinking or eating too much caffeine (in soda, coffee, tea, and chocolate)
  • consuming certain foods (such as alcohol, cheese, nuts, pizza, chocolate, ice cream, fatty or fried food, lunchmeats, hot dogs, yogurt, aspartame, or anything with the food additive MSG)
  • certain medications (headaches are a potential side effect of some)
  • too little sleep or sudden changes in sleep patterns

Headaches— What You Can Do About Them

To head off headaches from fatigue, make sure you get enough rest.

  • Keep eating — the low blood sugar that results from skipping meals can trigger a headache.
  • Go slow if you're giving up coffee. Cutting back on caffeine too fast can trigger withdrawal headaches.
  • Get some air. Avoid hot, stuffy, or smoky places.
  • Spend a few minutes lying in a dark, quiet room.
  • Put a heat pack on the back of your neck for 20 minutes while you relax.
  • Watch your posture. Try not to slouch, slump, or bend over for long stretches of time.
  • Use a tennis ball while lying on the ground to massage tender areas in your neck and upper back.
  • Try the exercises to help stretch the muscles in your neck and upper back and to improve your posture. These exercises can be done at home or at work and should be repeated as often as possible (see Figures 3,4)

funkychickenFigure 3. The Chin Tuck- sitting straight with your shoulder blades back tuck your chin in while keeping your eyes at the same level without extending your head backward. This can be done as many times as possible throughout the day to decrease tension in the muscles at the base of the skull.

neck posture exerciseFigure 4. The shoulder opener- focus on rolling your shoulders backwards and downwards while squeezing your shoulder blades together. Your palms should face outwards as you do this. Hold for 30 seconds.

Headaches and Pregnancy

Being pregnant can be a headache — literally. (Maybe it's just nature's way of preparing you to be the mother of a teenager).

The primary culprit is, as usual, the hormonal changes but other causes of headaches might be pregnancy fatigue, tension in the muscles, increased hunger during pregnancy, physical or emotional stress, overheating or a combination of any or all of these.

A posture of a pregnant woman changes dramatically to accommodate the growing baby and this can have an effect on both the back and neck. There are therapists who are specially trained in pregnancy care.

Dr. Maja Edgar (our chiropractor) and Amanda Holmes (our massage therapist) use very effective, safe and gentle techniques to help relax muscles and decrease pain with pregnant patients.

In addition, check out the below link to a YouTube video of our very own Dr. Cameron Edgar talking about tips for combating headaches!


Burlington Health and Wellness Show

On Sunday, April 28, 2013, we attended the Burlington Health and Wellness show. It was a great day and we got to speak to people about how they can achieve better health. We answered questions from the public about their bodies and met lots of amazing practitioners who have the same goal as us; better, healthier lives. Here are some pictures from the days event.


Spring Cleaning

Is that the sun I see?? The warmer weather is right around the corner and it’s time to clear some cobwebs. This month we are talking about some safe spring cleaning tactics.

Spring Cleaning

It’s that time of year again. Time to open our doors to the warmer weather and let in what we have been trying to keep out for the last few months.

As we crawl out of our hibernation, many of us will undertake the daunting task of a major clean up. While great to rid our homes of needless clutter (please try to recycle as much as possible – try the reuse center in Burlington on the north service road between Walker’s and Guelph this clean up can cause injuries and unnecessary pain and soreness.

We are going to talk about some of the common injuries that happen with cleaning and more importantly, what can you do to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Lift With Your Legs

You’re probably saying, “I’ve heard that before”. That’s because it’s true. What this means is to take the pressure off our backs which are much more susceptible to injury and use our powerful leg muscles. To do this stand as close to the object as you can. Squat down with your back straight and your heels on the ground. When you lift, try to push through your heels and keep the item as close to your body as possible. If you are not able to do these steps, get someone to help you lift.

Another way to lift safely is called the diagonal lift (see picture on the right). To do this properly, approach the object as close as you can. Squat down and place one foot ahead of the other (diagonally!) Keeping your back straight, drive upwards using your legs while keeping the object as close to your body as possible.

Another common injury, while not specific to once is, is that of a repetitive strain. This occurs with cleaning when we perform an action that our bodies aren’t used too over an over again.

Our muscles are not ready for the sudden increase in activity and the fibers in the muscle are torn. This can range from a mild soreness the next day to feeling severe pain and not being able to move the are in question.

The best way to prevent this from happening is to break up whatever task you are performing repetitively (mopping, wiping, scrubbing or any prolonged overhead work). Stretching after your activity can help as well.

If you do end up with soreness or pain use the R.I.C.E. principle:

R: Rest the area that’s injured
I: Ice the area for 15 minutes then takes the ice off. Repeat as needed to reduce inflammation.
C: If possible, compress the area with a warp to reduce swelling.
E: Elevate the injured area above your heart.

General Tip for Safe Spring Cleaning:

  • Before you get started with any vigorous or prolonged activity you might be planning, remember to warm up. This help to prevent injuries by getting the blood flowing to the muscles of your arms and legs. Take a brisk walk around your block while pumping your arms for 10 Minutes.
  • If you have to do any cleaning or work high up, use a step stool rather than a chair. Don’t overreach. Take the time to move the step stool closer to where you are trying to reach.
  • When carrying a load, make sure you can see over it to avoid tripping and falling and always use hand railings when going up a downstairs carrying items.

Springs is a Great Time to Get a Tune-Up!!

With the summer months just around the corner, many of us will be more active. You might be joining a summer recreational league, starting off the golfing season, or jogging and walking outside.

It is important to get a checkup and dust the rust off your joints and muscles so that when you start these activities you are feeling your best.

Our massage therapists and chiropractors can help to get you in the best possible shape and this way you can prevent injuries before they start!


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