The skeleton and muscles work together to allow movement. Standing upright on two feet instead of down on all fours has led humans to be plagued by a variety of posture related problems. Many of these can cause or contribute to headache. For instance, tension headache is almost always triggered by excessive muscle tension in the upper back, shoulders, neck and face. Treatment options for recurring headache caused by musculoskeletal problems vary according to the underlying cause.
Neck problems and headache
Research has found that irritated or inflamed nerves in the neck can refer pain into the face and scalp, causing headache. Common neck problems that cause or contribute to headache include:
- ‘whiplash’ – when the head is violently snapped backward and forward, commonly experienced in rear-end car collisions. The muscles and ligaments of the neck are strained and torn. In severe cases, the vertebrae of the neck can be dislocated or fractured
- trauma – caused by injuries sustained from, for example, falls or sporting accidents. The muscles, ligaments or bones can be affected
- inflammation or degeneration of the cervical spine – degeneration of the vertebrae, commonly caused by diseases such as osteoarthritis or spinal cord tumours
- wear and tear – the ageing process can lead to a progressive degeneration of the neck vertebrae.
Muscular tension and headache
Skeletal muscles are made up of muscle fibres, bundled together. Each fibre can contract or relax on demand. All fibres contract together to shorten a muscle. The command to contract or relax is given by the brain and relayed to the muscle by nerves. When we are under stress, we commonly tense the muscles of the shoulders, upper back, neck and face. This can lead to tension headache.
Painful trigger points and headache
When muscle tissue is tense or irritated, it tends to produce chemicals in response. A build-up of chemicals and other wastes in an area of muscle produces what is known as a ‘trigger point’. When a trigger point is pressured, it refers pain along associated nerves to an area nearby.
Trigger points of the face and neck can refer pain into the head, causing a headache. Joint problems of the neck are also involved. Some researchers believe that trigger points are the remains of old muscle injuries, or the result of chronic strain such as constant typing. Fatigue and diet also appear to play significant roles.
Poor posture, habits and headache
The way we stand, sit and lie down can put unnecessary tension on the structures of the neck. Common problems of posture and poor habits include:
- slouching while sitting down
- spending too long sitting down, such as working at a computer
- sleeping on the stomach with the head always faced to one side
- clenching the jaw.
Nerve irritation and headache
The pain-sensitive structures of the neck and skull are serviced by a central nerve. Occipital neuralgia is a type of headache caused by irritation of this nerve. Typically, the pain throbs in the base of the skull and sometimes flashes into the face, particularly the forehead. The nerve can be irritated by:
- muscle tension
- bad posture
- viral infection.
Treatment options for headache
Headaches caused by problems of the musculoskeletal system tend to ease once the underlying disorder is addressed. It is important to seek professional advice, as chronic headache tends to have more than one contributing factor. Treatment from a musculoskeletal expert, such as a chiropractor, has been found to be helpful for a wide range of neck and back related conditions.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Complementary medical therapist
Things to remember
- Problems of the musculoskeletal system, such as injuries or poor posture, can cause or contribute to headache.
- Common problems include whiplash injury, muscle tension, poor posture and nerve irritation
- Headaches that are caused by problems of the musculoskeletal system tend to ease once the underlying disorder is addressed.
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