This time of year, our immune systems can be a little sluggish. This can leave us vulnerable to coughs, colds, flus and headaches. However, there can be many other reasons for headaches, and Physiotherapists are presented with headache sufferers all year round.
Sometimes headaches can actually be a referred pain from the neck. These are called cervicogenic headaches, as they originate in the cervical region of the spine (neck). They can occur if the facet joints become irritated, stiff or inflamed. The facet joints are the areas on the sides of the vertebrae bones where one bone connects to its neighbour above/below, via an articulation of the smooth surface of bone. There is synovial fluid in each facet joint, enclosed by a joint capsule. Sliding and gliding of these facet joints in the neck allows movement of our head on our shoulders. Nerve roots branch out from the spinal cord, right beside the facet joint. The nerves from the upper cervical spine give sensation to different areas of the head. When there is chemical (inflammation) or physical (minor bulge in disc) irritation of the nerves in the upper cervical spine, this too can send pain into different parts of the head. Common areas include the base of the skull, behind the eyes or forehead, and the temples. The headache may be felt centrally, or on both sides of the head, or perhaps only on one side.
Those who suffer from cervicogenic headaches may or may not have neck pain or stiffness accompanying their headache symptoms.
Physiotherapists can certainly make a huge difference to headaches if they are cervicogenic. You may ask your Physio to diagnose whether or not this is the cause of your headaches, or you may choose to ask your GP, who can then refer you to a Physio for treatment. To alleviate your headaches, your Physio may adopt techniques to enhance the sliding and gliding of the facet joints. This may include mobilisation, and manipulation (where warranted). Loosening surrounding muscular tightness in your cervical muscles, particularly the suboccipital group at the base of your skull, may be targeted with massage, stretching and gentle traction techniques. Your Physio can also give you correct advice on exercises and postural strategies which may assist in relieving headaches and preventing recurrence of them. Believe it or not, each of ice therapy and heat therapy has their advantages. Whilst a wheat bag can relax tight surrounding muscles and is very comforting, an ice-pack on the neck can actually reduce inflammation deep in the facet joints near the nerve roots and give very effective headache relief.
So why not consider your Physiotherapist next time you feel a headache building. Instant relief may only be one or two treatments away!