Learn More About Head Pain
Everyone suffers headaches sometimes. The causes behind them can be a mystery. Some are associated with seasonal allergies or stress; others are more likely transferred pain from your neck or your back. And, who doesn't have a day when the combination of workplace stress and poor ergonomics leave you with a pain in your neck and a pounding head? While some people may dismiss headaches as the cost of living in the modern world, it's important to understand that they are not inevitable. If you are suffering frequent or severe headaches, we can help you find the source and experience relief.
Who Is at Risk?
The risk of head pain is nearly universal. Everyone will suffer from at least one headache at some point in their lives. Headaches become of concern, however, when they cause your ability to function and your quality of life to suffer.
Around 15% of U.S. adults suffer from chronic headaches, defined as experiencing head pain at least 15 days per month. Headaches may feel similar to one another, but their location and sources can be different. Some individuals feel the pain across their face or forehead. Others will experience pain in their upper backs, necks and the base of the skill. Pain may be generalized, or it may be felt in a specific area.
In some cases, neck pain is the root cause of headaches. It is critical to find a physician who can diagnose the source of your pain so that you can start experiencing relief and get back to your active life.
Most Common Causes of Head Pain
Headaches can be caused by a number of different factors. Sometimes the culprit is caffeine; having too much can cause a headache, as can missing your daily dose if you are a morning coffee drinker. A headache is also a common symptom of both hunger and dehydration. Many headaches have a psychological factor, as well. Depression is strongly associated with a headache. In some cases, the headache is the result of anxiety and depression. In others, severe, chronic pain can lead to depression over time.
Headaches are generally divided into two groups: primary and secondary headaches. The first is related directly to issues with pain-sensitive structures in the head; the second type is a symptom of an underlying condition.
If you are suffering a headache whose cause is directly related to problems with nerves, blood vessels or muscles in your head and/or chemical activity in your brain, this is considered a primary headache. Some individuals have genetic factors that make them more susceptible to these sorts of headaches. The most common types of primary headaches are:
- tension headaches (also sometimes called tension-type headaches)
- migraine headaches (these can occur with or without auras)
- cluster headaches
- trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia (TAC), such as paroxysmal hemicrania and cluster headache
A secondary headache is one that develops as a symptom of another condition or an outside force. For instance, both sinus infections and strong smells can trigger severe headaches. Many conditions can activate the pain-sensitive nerves in and around your head. Secondary headaches can vary greatly in severity and frequency.
The most common causes of secondary headaches include:
- Pressure from too-tight headgear. This is common in athletes whose sports require protective helmets. Proper fitting is a must.
- Brain freeze. When you eat something that is too cold, a sharp and abrupt headache can occur. These usually resolve themselves within a few minutes, but can sometimes persist.
- Sinus headaches. The sinus cavities can become congested and inflamed, resulting in severe pain.
- Spinal headaches. These headaches are often caused by spinal anesthesia or taps. In other cases, they can be the result of low volume or pressure of cerebrospinal fluid.
- Neck strains or sprains. Often, the muscle tension and spasms from these conditions can contribute to headaches.
- Thunderclap headaches. These sudden and severe headaches are caused by a wide range of conditions.
- Rebound headaches. Overuse of pain medication can, paradoxically, cause head pain. Talk to your doctor about the medications you are using.
Ways to Relieve Head Pain
Many people wish to avoid over-reliance on prescription and OTC pain medications. Minimizing the use of medications can help you avoid potential side effects and rebound headaches.
Often, headaches can be resolved or at least partially alleviated without the use of medication. Try these medication-free headache remedies for head pain relief:
Massage your shoulders, neck, and temples.
In some cases, muscle tension is the cause of your pain. If you feel tense, try rubbing your neck and temples with the tips of your fingers. This can improve the blood flow to soothe tension headache pain.
Often, dehydration is the source of your headache. Drink plenty of fluids for relief and prevent headache pain. You can also eat water-rich fruits and vegetables such as cucumber or watermelon.
Close your eyes and rest for a bit.
Tension headaches and some migraines can be relieved by rest. Sitting or lying in a dark, quiet room can allow you to relax. Focus on breathing and releasing tension. If you have time for a nap, the sleep can help refresh you and relieve headache pain.
Use heat on your neck.
A warm cloth or a heating pad can ease tension and headaches. Try wrapping it around your neck by the base of your skull. If heat is ineffective, you can also try cold packs across your forehead or around the base of your neck.
Meditation that focuses on breathing and visualization can be an effective headache reliever. By learning these relaxation techniques, you can significantly improve headaches that are the result of muscle tension or contraction.
Limit headache triggering foods and drinks.
Both caffeine and cigarettes are well-known to cause headaches in many people. Some alcoholic beverages, particularly red wine, are known to contribute to head pain, even when consumed in moderation. Be sure to stay well hydrated when drinking red wine or try switching to another variety. Many migraine patients report that chocolate, aged cheeses, and smoked or cured foods also contribute to their symptoms.
Minimize and manage stress.
Sometimes, what is needed is literally stepping out of a stressful situation. If your office is loud and chaotic, try going home early to get some rest. You can also try tracking your stress and moods using mood tracking software or paper journals. When you are able to identify the situations that cause you the most stress, you can minimize your exposure.
Try peppermint or lavender.
The scents of both of these can help easy and numb headaches. Many people find relief by placing a few drops of essential oil on their hands and then gently rubbing them over their head and across the back of their neck. If the scent of these oils is too strong when used neat, try dispersing them into a carrier oil such as almond or coconut oil. Scented lotions or oils used in a diffuser can also ease tension and bring relief.
Headache Treatment Options
A number of treatments are available to alleviate the conditions that are causing headache symptoms. These treatments may be used separately or in conjunction with one another. Some treatment options include:
Acupuncture is an ancient practice that is still used today for its ability to interrupt pain signals and provide relief. During treatment, very fine needles are strategically placed into the skin at depths that range from a few millimeters to as much as 10 centimeters. Where the needles are placed will depend on the source of the pain. For a primary headache, for instance, the placement may be different than for a secondary headache that is the result of a chronic condition or a neck injury.
Your doctor may also use electro acupuncture, which adds a small current to the treatment. Along with traditional acupuncture, this has been seen in studies to increase blood flow to an area and to help reduce pain.
Acupuncture is considered to have a low risk of side effects. Some individuals may experience some bleeding or bruising at the treatment site. Some individuals being treated with electroacupuncture may also experience mild skin irritation. These side effects are usually not severe and resolve quickly.
These injections are not just useful in reducing the appearance of lines and wrinkles. Botox has long been known to help reduce muscle spasms that can lead to head pain. Derived from purified botulism toxin, the treatment temporarily paralyzes muscles that may be causing the tension that leads to pain.
In studies, migraine sufferers found relief for several months after being treated with Botox injections. A number of those treated report a significant reduction in the frequency and severity of their migraines.
Botox should only be administered by trained medical personnel. This can help you avoid potential side effects and complications. A treatment is usually effective for between three and six months. In many cases, your doctor will also recommend another therapy to be used in conjunction with Botox.
Chiropractic treatments are most effective for head pain that is associated with a neck or back injury. When your neck or back is injured, you can often hold muscle tension throughout the areas around the injury. Seeking treatment for that pain can help alleviate associated headaches, as well.
During a chiropractic treatment, controlled pressure is applied to the spine. This can help relieve pressure and improve the mobility of any affected joints. Where the adjustments will be made will depend on the nature of your pain and your injury.
Therapeutic massage is often used alongside chiropractic care when treating pain from headaches. Your doctor will make recommendations for treatments that can complement one another and provide more complete and lasting relief.
Chiropractic adjustments can sometimes have the side effect of increased discomfort or even headaches. These symptoms often resolve themselves within a day or two of your chiropractic treatment.
Exercise and Physical Therapy
Regular exercise can help improve blood flow and reduce stress levels. Together, these can help reduce the severity and frequency of tension headaches. If your headaches are caused by tension, our physical therapist can teach you exercises that can help you get the physical activity that you need.
Physical therapy can be effective not just in relieving headaches but also in preventing their recurrence in the future. This is especially true when your headache is the result of muscle tension, spinal disc problems or poor posture. Our physical therapy staff can teach you better body mechanics to avoid pain. They can also help you strengthen relevant muscles and increase flexibility to reduce the chances of muscle tension leading to headaches.
Additionally, treatments can be focused on modifying a patient's emotional response to symptoms. Anxiety and depression that are related to a chronic condition can, in turn, make other symptoms worse. By learning coping techniques that can short-circuit negative emotional responses, the patient can reduce their chance of developing symptoms like secondary headaches.
Direct Nerve Treatments
Sometimes chronic headaches do not respond to the more conservative treatments above. In these cases, treatments that work directly on the nerves can be extremely helpful.
Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is a treatment that disrupts nerve activity so that pain signals can no longer be delivered. The treatment involves the insertion of a narrow probe near the involved nerves. Then, a radiofrequency signal is applied to the area to generate heat. This heat disrupts the nerve activity and helps prevent future pain. This treatment is especially effective for headaches that affect the occipital nerve, which runs from the spine to the scalp.
For headaches that are associated with issues in the neck, a stellate ganglion block can be effective. Located on either side of your larynx, these nerves affect several regions, including the face. If you suffer from migraines, this treatment can increase blood flow to the area while reducing pain and tension.
Sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG) ablation can help people who have sinus headaches that have not responded to other treatments. Blocking the pain signal can provide relief when you cannot remove the cause of sinus pain symptoms.
Another treatment that works directly on the nerves is spinal cord stimulation (SCS). This treatment involves the insertion of small implants along the spine where they can directly target the nerves that compose the trigeminocervical complex. The implants are then connected to a controller that delivers small, targeted electrical pulses. The pulses interfere with the nerves' ability to send signals to the brain, which effectively interrupts pain. This treatment has been found to be especially effective for migraine headache pain.
When to See PRM
Headache pain that is infrequent can typically be handled at home. In most cases, headaches will resolve on their own. However, you should see a doctor if you experience headaches or neck pain that:
- are more severe than usual.
- occur frequently, especially if they occur more often than usual.
- interfere with your work or your enjoyment of day to day activities.
- worsen or do not improve when treated with appropriate amounts of over-the-counter medications.
- cause you distress.
Get in touch with us to discuss your headaches if you are seeking treatment to make them better.
Performance & Regenerative Medicine treats an array of conditions that can contribute to headaches, including:
- cervical radiculopathy.
- disc disorders.
- muscle sprains and strains in the neck and back.
And other conditions.
Request a Consultation
Dr. Mike Harris brings patients many years of experience at effective pain management practices.
Do you have headaches that cause you significant distress or interfere with your quality of life? Pain is not a symptom that you have to live with and it should not be ignored. Finding the source of your pain is the first step to finding effective treatment that can provide lasting relief.
We are dedicated to diagnosing the source of your pain and creating customized programs for you. Get in touch today for a consultation.