Patients with headaches also commonly complain of neck pain, which is not surprising. There are many anatomical reasons why neck problems result in headaches. Some of these include:
The first 3 nerves exiting the spine in the upper neck go directly into the head. They penetrate the muscles at the top of the neck near the attachments to the skull; therefore, excess pressure from these muscles will result in irritation and subsequent pain.
The origin of the 5th cranial nerve (there are 12 of them, all inside the cranium) called the Trigeminal, which controls feeling to the face, is located in the upper cervical (neck) region near the 2nd cervical spinal nerve, which controls feeling to the back of the head up to the top. Therefore, spinal problems in the upper neck can trigger pain covering the back of the head to the top, down to the face and eyes.
The 11th cranial nerve that controls the upper shoulders and muscles in the front of the neck arises from the top 5 to 7 spinal cord levels in the neck. Injury anywhere in the neck can result in spasm and pain in these large muscle groups.
Other neural interconnections in these areas can affect facial muscle movement, taste, tongue and throat movements, and even stomach complaints such as nausea.
When patients seek treatment for their headaches, a thorough examination of the neck, upper back, and cranial nerves is routinely performed for the above reasons. It is common to find upper vertebral alignment problems present in patients complaining of headaches. Tender points located between the shoulder blades, along the upper shoulders, on the sides of the neck and particularly, at the base of the skull are commonly found. When pressure is applied to the upper neck/base of the skull area it often causes radiating pain up the head. Tenderness on the sides of the head, in the temples, over the eyes, and near the jaw joint are also common.
Traction and stretching of the neck can relieve pain and this is often performed as part of the chiropractic visit and can also be applied at home with the use of a home cervical traction unit. Gentle adjustments applied to the fixated or misaligned vertebra in the upper neck often bring very satisfying relief to the headache sufferer. Exercises that promote movement in the neck, as well as strengthening exercises are helpful in both reducing headache pain and in preventing occurrences, especially with stress or tension headaches.
If you have headaches that keep coming back, chances are that your neck is involved. If you have a history of car accidents, sports injuries, or other types of trauma to the neck, it is quite likely the case. To schedule a compliimentary headache evaluation, feel free to call the office at (925) 855-5525.
Dan Perez, DC