Few things can be more debilitating than a persistent headache. But what causes headaches, and what can you do to get rid of headaches for good?
What Causes Headaches
It’s important to realise that there are several different types of headaches – migraines, tension-type headaches and cervicogenic headaches. Whilst they are very similar in terms of presentation, they can be caused by vastly different things. Migraines may be caused by emotional factors like stress or anxiety, or environmental and physical factors like exhaustion and jetlag. For this article, we will focus on headaches caused by neck dysfunction.
In the upper region of the neck, there are bundles of nerves that all have unique jobs – one of these nerves (the trigeminal nerve), is responsible for sensation in the face, including the head, forehead, eye and temple region. Pressure on the upper cervical region will send pain signals through these nerves, causing the pain to travel to the front of the head.
Pressure can come from degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis, whiplash or trauma (like from a fall or from playing sport).
Prolonged poor posture when sitting or standing at work can also create this pressure at the base of the skull.
People stuck in front of computers are prone to headaches because over time desk-workers tend to slump in their chair and poke the chin forward, increasing the load on the upper cervical joints. Other professions such as hairdressers, builders and drivers have to sustain positions with their arms in front and can be very overactive through the upper trap muscles, which connect to the first few cervical vertebra, meaning they are also highly susceptible.
How to Treat Headaches
There are two steps to getting rid of headaches for good. The first is to relieve the symptoms of the headache by treating the neck dysfunction. Three exercises to relieve headaches are:
1. Upper trap release
What to do: use a ball to apply pressure into the upper trap muscle by leaning forward and pushing into the wall. The upper trap can be found at the top of the shoulder and extends from the tip of the shoulder up to the neck. Find areas of discomfort and apply sustained pressure for 30 seconds before easing off.
How often: 2 minutes of ball work on each shoulder at least twice a day; this is also a great exercise to break up a work day full of sitting by doing every few hours.
2. Chin Tucks with Rotation
What to do: Sit up tall and relax the shoulders back and down. Gently pull the chin backward into the spine, like you’re trying to create a double chin – this should be a small movement with minimal effort. Holding this position, slowly turn the head to one side, making sure the chin doesn’t begin to poke forwards through the movement. Only go as far as you can whilst maintaining a chin tuck. Return to the start and repeat in the other direction.
How often: 5 each side every few hours – this is a ‘little and often’ exercise, designed to slowly strengthen the muscles in the neck.
3. Cervical Traction
What to do: Lie down on your back with your knees bent and with a small block or a book underneath your head, just at the base of the skull. Gently tuck the chin down towards the block, just like the chin tuck in the last exercise. To apply more pressure, slowly straighten out your legs – you should feel a very gentle pull in the neck.
How often: Sustain this position for 1 minute and repeat 3 times. Perform twice a day.
The second step to getting rid of headaches for good is to address the weakness or mobility issues that have caused your poor postures in the first place. Here’s two great exercises to get you up straighter:
1. Cat / Cow
What to do: This exercise is a yoga/pilates staple for a reason. Start in a four point kneeling position (on your hands and knees), with your hands below your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Slowly begin by extending the lower back, then the upper back and finally the neck – imagine trying to feel each joint of your spine moving individually and in slow motion. Then reverse this movement by flexing the lower back, upper back and then the neck.
How often: Complete ten reps (back and forth) twice through each day.
What to do: Grab a band and stand with feet shoulder width apart, elbows bent at 90 degrees by your side and palms face up. Set the shoulder blades in a good position by rolling the shoulders back – think about widening the collar bones. From here, keeping the elbows tucked by your side, pull the hands apart, maintaining palms face up. Feel the squeeze in the shoulder blades and the backs of the shoulders working, then return to the start position.
How often: 2 sets of 10 reps, twice a day
This article was written by Physiotherapist – Sam Crossland, from our Precision Physio Concord clinic. If you would like more information, or feel you might benefit from a session with one of the Precision Physio team, you can either come into our clinics, or work with us online.
How Do I Book An Appointment?
We’re taking the health of our clients, members and staff very seriously and our preference would be for you to call to book an appointment so that we can make sure to explain our approach to keeping you safe. You can call any of these numbers to schedule a session:
- Customer Support Centre: 02 8607 4000
- Precision Physio Concord: 02 9736 3950
- Precision Physio St Marys: 02 9623 2220
Evolving with the current environment, we are also now offering online appointments, meaning that we can support anyone who is unable to leave their home. Sessions are done via our state of the art Telehealth system and as long as you have a laptop or tablet with an inbuilt camera, or a phone with camera, we can help!
To learn more about online consultations, please call us on any of the numbers listed above.