Headaches are a pain, literally and figuratively. They sneak up on you, slowly making you crankier and crankier, ruining your day. Headaches are attributed to many different causes; often we say “I’m stressed” or “I need to drink more water” or even “I didn’t get enough sleep.” But did you know many headaches can be tied to our posture and muscle tightness in our neck?
We call this kind of a headache a cervicogenic headache, which means that it originates in the neck. These headaches can be re-occurring and difficult to manage. Over the counter medications don’t always do the trick and since these headaches can have a lot of overlap with the symptoms of migraines, it’s common that they are misdiagnosed.
Our posture and the work many of us do can negatively effect our necks. Humans sit too much, work on computers and spend a lot of time looking down at our phones. This can lead to postural changes that can be stubborn to correct. That’s where physical therapists come in.
Physical therapy is an excellent way to get a handle on these frustrating headaches. By evaluating your posture, strength, joint mobility and tissue quality we are able to pinpoint specific issues that need to be addressed. Through hands on work, that may include massage, joint mobilizations and manual stretching, to stabilizing and strengthening exercises we will work to restore your posture to a healthy neutral. This will decrease the strain through the joints in the spine and will help to maintain unimpaired muscles. You will feel better and you will look taller. Other treatment can also include a workplace assessment to improve your ergonomics throughout the day.
Cervicogenic headaches often start at the base of the skull and develop into a “ram’s horn” on the side of the head. Aside from pain, other symptoms can include sensitivity to light and sound and sometimes nausea and vomiting. These headaches are chronic but will begin infrequently and increase in intensity and frequency if left untreated. Even a currently active headache can be lessened with physical therapy intervention. Even if you are not sure if your headaches are cervicogenic, a physical therapist can help to sort out your symptoms and begin to give you relief.
Kirsten Twaite, DPT
Kirsten is a doctor of physical therapy who has worked mainly in outpatient orthopedic and women’s health clinics.