Headaches – the pain tension cycle

The most common headache is a tension headache. Just about everyone gets one from time to time. It usually starts out mildly with a little tension in the neck, shoulders and back of the head. The tension leads to pain. The pain creates more tension. And so it escalates in a vicious cycle. To relieve the resultant headache, the cycle must be broken. Most people will take a pain reliever. If the pain can be reduced and the source of the tension is not continuing unabated, the headache will usually go away.

For occasional headaches, this method of treatment works well for most people. There are two main problems with it though. First, medication works with varying effectiveness and carries with it risks and side effects. Secondly, the cause of the headache was not addressed. Sometimes the cause is obvious, such as a horribly stressful day or a poor night’s sleep. Other times it’s not so obvious. Headaches may be coming back for no apparent reason. When that is the case, don’t just ignore it and take more pain pills. See a professional and find the cause. Sometimes it’s something simple that can be taken care of, in which case you don’t want to just go through life covering it up. In some cases, the headaches are a sign of something more ominous that needs attention. In all cases, if a severe headache comes on suddenly, especially if there are any neurological symptoms accompanying it, seek medical attention immediately.

A common source of chronic headaches that I see in my practice is vertebral subluxations (small misalignments) in the neck. Through a series of chiropractic adjustments, these subluxations can be corrected. When we do so, we find in most cases that the headaches are eliminated or significantly reduced. I’ve had many patients tell me that the quality of their life has vastly improved by bringing the headaches under control. There are often other factors that we look at also. We want to eliminate as many of the causal factors as we can for the overall health of the patient. As far as the headaches go, it’s often a matter of reducing the problems to the point that the body can deal with them better and then the headaches go away or occur with less frequency and severity.

Whenever an occasional tension headache does come on, here are a few things you can do to help relieve it:

  • Tension headache pain often comes from the muscle attachments on the occiput (base of the skull at the back of the head). Applying mild pressure with your fingertips on the painful points on the occiput, especially with a little upward pull, helps to relieve that pain at those muscle attachments.
  • Ice will also help to soothe the muscles and drive out inflammation from irritated muscles and joints. (Heat can be very relaxing, but should only be used when you’re certain there is no inflammation.) An effective method of icing the neck is to roll up a small towel and lay a soft ice pack or bag of crushed ice over the towel. Then put a towel or cloth napkin over the ice. (You should not have the ice pack right against your skin.) Lay on your back with this ice pack arrangement under your neck for 10-15 minutes. (Do not use ice if you have circulation problems or are overly sensitive to cold.)
  • Take several slow, deep breaths. When we get stressed, our breathing often becomes shallow and erratic. Deep breathing helps your body to relax, gives you a bit more oxygen and helps rid your body of carbon dioxide and toxins.
  • Drop your shoulders. When we get stressed, we tend to hunch our shoulders upward. After a while, we get knots in the muscles between our neck and shoulders. Pull your shoulders down; reach for the floor. Did your shoulders go down significantly? That’s a good sign that you’re a shoulder huncher. Do your reach for the floor exercise periodically, especially in conjunction with deep breathing. This will not only help stretch out the muscles (especially the trapezius), but helps you to be aware of when you’re hunching your shoulders.

2 Responses to “Headaches – the pain tension cycle”

  1. jeannine Says:

    Thank you for this very helpful information. My family and I look forward to visiting you and gaining greater health and being able to better enjoy lifes activities.

  2. frequent headaches Says:

    frequent headaches…

    […]Headaches – the pain tension cycle « Dr. Whittaker's Blog[…]…

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