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!


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