Thanks to our award-winning osteopath Katie Johnston, her latest article helps us understand what some of the causes of frequent headaches are and what you can do to reduce them!
“Headache is now the most common chronic pain in the UK. The two most common causes of frequent headaches are migraine and tension headaches (and some people are unlucky and get a mixture of both!). But what causes these headaches, and what can you do about it?
Migraines are more than just severe headaches. Commonly sufferers experience a severe throbbing headache alongside other symptoms. These symptoms include nausea (feeling sick), vomiting, dizziness, pins and needles, changes in vision or hearing and neck pain.
Researchers are not entirely sure what causes migraine. It is thought to be due to abnormal brain activity. This can lead to a temporary swelling of blood vessels. A rush of blood to the brain can increase pressure and lead to symptoms similar to those in concussion.
There are different factors that lead to migraine, some genetic links have been found, smoking, obesity, posture, neck pain and stiffness also have links to migraine.
It has been found that 69% of people with migraine episodes and 92% of those with chronic migraine have neck problems linked with their condition. This means that treating the neck can be effective at reducing symptoms. Commonly it is the upper neck and base of the skull which causes the most issues.
To have a quick check to see if your neck could be aggravating your symptoms, try rotating your head to the left and right. Is the movement symmetrical? Have a feel into the base of your skull where it meets your neck. Do these muscles feel tender? Carry on feeling down the neck for tender points, sometimes these even refer pain to the head. If you have neck tenderness or movement asymmetry it would be worthwhile to seek some manual treatment (osteopathy, acupuncture, massage) to try and improve your symptoms.
These are the most common type of headache. 81% of the population are affected. It usually starts when people are in their 20s and 30s. It is very rare to have your first tension headache after the age of 50. Unlike in migraine the pain tends to affect both sides of the head, with either a band-like pain or a feeling of fullness in the head. They tend to have a gradual onset (start slowly then build up) and often start in the mornings.
It is thought that tension type headache is caused by a number of factors which build up to irritate the muscles, joints and nerves in the head and neck. This leads to an increased sensitivity of the nervous system leading to generalised symptoms of pain.
Poor posture due to desk work or stress can lead to muscular imbalances or pressures on the joints of the neck leading to irritations. If an area of the neck is irritable it can irritate local nerves which refer pain to the head. To check if this is affecting you, ask your colleagues to take a photo of you at your desk. Do you sit straight on to the screen? Do you carry your head forward or slouch into your seat? Your eyeline should be level with a third of the way down the screen. Use of tablets or reading in bed can also lead to poor posture and aggravate headache symptoms.
Your osteopath can also look at your global posture and suggest changes you can make, either by changing your position at work or leisure or suggesting exercises to loosen and strengthen muscles.
Often simple painkillers such as paracetamol or ibruprofen relieve tension type headaches. However, using too much medication can also cause headaches! (Known as medication overuse headaches.) So often it is better to get to the bottom of the problem and reduce painkiller usage. One of the best ways to do this is to de-stress, address your desk posture (ergonomics) and sort out any problems with your neck.
Of course, in order to get the right treatment it is essential to get the right diagnosis. An osteopath can perform a thorough examination of your head, neck and shoulders to find a diagnosis. They can also look at your daily routines to see if there could be any factors aggravating your headaches, or any changes or exercises you could do to reduce symptoms.”