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Tension headaches are the most common type of headache with most people experiencing one at some time in their lives. They are usually felt as a “band” around the head or behind the eyes and are often associated with neck stiffness or pain.
Tension headaches result from pain that is referred from dysfunctional muscles and joints of the neck and shoulders. They therefore typically respond very well to hands on treatment such as chiropractic. However, addressing the underlying cause of muscle or joint dysfunction or any exacerbating factors is key for full resolution and long term improvement.
Tension headaches can be exacerbated by a variety of factors such as:
- Stress and anxiety. Many people ‘hold their tension’ in their neck and shoulders exacerbating tightness and pain.
- Squinting. This can increase tension in the muscles around the eyes, the back of the head and also neck and shoulders.
- Poor posture. Places greater strain on muscles of the neck and shoulders.
- Increased sitting/ lack of physical activity. This increases stiffness of the muscles and joints.
- Muscle imbalances or faulty movement patterns. This result in certain muscles becoming overworked and tight.
- Tiredness. Lack of sleep can lower pain thresholds predisposing to pain and headaches.
- Food sensitivities. May present as headaches.
What does chiropractic for tension headache involve?
Treatment is tailored to the patient dependant on the findings from the examination. Chiropractic aims to treat the both the local symptoms and the underlying cause(s) which is a big factor to why chiropractic treatment for tension headache is so successful. Treatment may involve manipulation, soft tissue work, dry needling, exercise, along with ergonomic and nutritional advice. This is explained in more detail below.
How does chiropractic for tension headache work?
Triggers points or ‘knots’ in the muscles of the neck and shoulders can cause referred pain into the head causing tension headache. To the right is an image of the referral pattern of the sub-occipital muscles at the base of the skull. When irritated these small muscles refer pain around the temples and behind the eyes – the typical pattern for a tension headache. A range of soft tissue approaches such as active release, trigger point therapy or ischaemic compression can be used to treat these muscles to relieve headache.
Restriction in the movement of the cervical facets (the joints of the neck) is a common source of both neck pain and headache. Chiropractic manipulation and mobilisation are very effective approaches to restore proper movement to these joints to reduce local and referred pain.
Manipulation can also be effectively used to treat underlying headache causes. For example, stiffness and restriction in the joints of the middle back can result in a forward head posture (see image). This forward position of the head places an increased stress of the joints and discs of the neck. It also increases the strain on certain neck muscles such as the trapezius and suboccipitals which, when irritated, can refer pain to the head. Spinal manipulation of the thoracic spine (middle back) is a very effective method of restoring motion to these joints and allowing proper positioning of the head.
Dry needling is a therapeutic technique using an acupuncture needle to penetrate the skin and stimulate the underlying tissue. Dry needling is very effective at treating deep trigger points in the suboccipital and upper trapezius muscles to reduce tension headache.
Stretches and mobilisation exercises can be used to relieve pain and tightness of the dysfunctional muscles and joints causing headache. Strengthening exercises can be used to address underlying causes of the headache such as forward head posture or other muscle imbalances.
For example, the wall squat (seen opposite) is a great exercise to strengthen key postural muscles and open up the chest and shoulders – improving forward head posture and reducing strain on the neck.
Is chiropractic for tension headache safe?
Yes. Chiropractic is widely recognised as one of the safest, drug-free, non-invasive therapies available for the treatment of nerve, muscle and joint complaints. Most patients experience immediate relief following chiropractic treatment for headache however, some may experience mild soreness, stiffness or aching, just as they might after exercise. Current research shows that this discomfort typically fades within 24 hours.
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- Liebenson. C., Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies
‘Chiropractic for Tension Headache’ was written by Steffen Toates. Steffen is a chiropractor at Dynamic Health Chiropractic in Jersey, Channel Islands. For more information about Steffen click here.