Can Physio Help with a Tension Headache Caused by Neck Pain?
So, how does a physio help with headaches caused by neck pain?
Great question! One we get asked all the time at PridePlus Health as there are many of us suffering with headaches which are actually neck aches that radiate symptoms into our heads.
A neck-headache is correctly known as a cervicogenic headache is where the neck joints are suffering and sending messages to your central pain processing centre (in your brain) that you need to do something about it.
The exact statistics are a little varied but researchers have identified that between 5% and 22% of all headaches are neck-headaches.
What causes a neck-headache?
We have a really complex relationship between our spine, the nerves emanating from within the spine, the muscles that stabilise our neck and a few other smaller structures. When these structures get loaded outside their optimal zone of stress they transmit signals to our brain which interprets these and provides us with a pain response – a neck headache!
Sometimes this overload is due to the position we sit at for work, in front of computer monitors with our necks held in the same position for hours on end. Sometimes it’s from spending too long in the car with our car headrest tilting our neck into a position that it’s not comfortable being in.
Other times we can get a neck-headache or neck pain if we don’t have enough strength in our neck muscles to stabilise our head and move it successfully.
There’s an emerging school of thought in some quarters of the health care world that constant texting and looking down at mobile phone screens can lead to neck headaches as well.
Well I work at a computer monitor for 8 hours, drive 3 hours and spend another hour on my phone at home. These are non-negotiable for my life. How will I ever get rid of my neck-headaches and neck pain?
The trick that almost everyone with neck-headaches has tried before coming to a physio is to change their activities to the best of their abilities. If neck-headaches and neck pain were purely caused by positions or movements then this would be an easy solve in most cases.
But, despite what we said earlier, there are a few more important factors leading to neck-headaches. If we address these factors we can still lead lives where we sit in front of computers, drive and text pain free.
How a physio can help with neck-headaches and neck pain
A physio will look at why your neck muscles, joints or nerves are sending signals up to your brain which are being computed into a pain signal (the ache part of the neck-headache).
For many of us this would involve a careful assessment of your neck paying attention to posture, positioning and movement range and quality.
Depending on what areas need to be addressed your physio will develop a plan for you which might include manipulation of tender areas to change the signals being transmitted upstairs. Think of this as the gentle clicks and massage which feels oh-so good.
Your physio might then look to mobilise with exercises to increase the range and or quality of your neck joints.
Super importantly, your physio will look at what muscle strength is needed and what can be changed. This part is the most likely to have the biggest effect in the long term of not just fixing your current neck-headache, but stopping them from returning.
What else can a physio do for me and my neck-headaches?
You want more?
Well, working at the level of the tissues under load in the neck will provide amazing relief and respite for sufferers of neck-headaches and neck pain but there is another under utilised treatment area which can also be beneficial. Our brains.
Our brains are the only area in our body we truly feel pain. We do not have pain receptors in our neck, in our arms, our fingers or toes. We only have signalers which send information up to the brain, but none of these signals are yet pain signals! They’re purely bits of information our brain computes into a feeling, and pain is one of the most primal of all our feelings.
Our brain takes the signals from our tissues such as pressure, temperature or internal strain and then performs a complex equation where the output, a feeling is produced. Too much temp, pressure, strain or all three equals pain.
Now our brain also takes other signals into account when calculating what feeling and how intense it should be. Our level of rest, our levels of stress, our levels of nutrition all influence this equation. Importantly our own past history also influences this equation as well.
An example of this in action is someone who has previously had a lot of neck-headaches who is sitting at their computer workstation for 4 hours. They missed lunch to work to a deadline. They didn’t sleep well due to stress from working too hard. There’s a very high chance that in this instance that person’s brain will perform the equation and it will equal a big bad neck-headache.
Let’s contrast this with someone who hasn’t had a neck-headache before, their on holiday, sitting on the beach with their favourite book with their neck fixed in the same position reading for more than 8 hours. This person is rested, relaxed and has enjoyed a beautiful healthy meal. Their brain has likely received MORE temperature, pressure and strain signals coming into it than the former but because of the other factors they are much less likely to suffer with a neck-headache. If they do, it would be of a much lesser intensity.
Your expert physio can guide you through some clear goal setting and education to give you more control of your symptoms by helping you understand this complex relationship in much more detail than a blog post can provide.
And maybe your physio can prescribe a beach side holiday whilst they’re at it?
If you are suffering with a neck-headache or neck pain book in with our expert Pascoe Vale physiotherapists for your consultation today.