They are often short-lived, and easy to soothe with a couple of over-the-counter pills. But what about headaches that don’t go away? The ones that hang on day and night, that medication only goes so far to relieve?
It’s important to note that headaches can stem from different sources: blood pressure, hormonal imbalance, muscle tension, nerve compression, or irritation of the spinal joints, among others. Medication simply isn’t effective with some of these causes. Medication mainly affects blood pressure, hormones and pain, and doesn’t necessarily deal with the true cause. In this article we will primarily address musculoskeletal causes: those having to do with muscles and joints.
To begin with, it’s important to fully visualize the musculature present in the neck that supports our heavy heads all day long (nearly 10% of our body weight). We have several muscles that allow us to stand/sit up straight. The superficial muscles are primarily for movement, and the deep muscles are for stability and endurance. Weakness in the deep muscles can lead to fatigue of the superficial muscles, causing pain and postural change. These muscles, both in front and in back, are affected by workplace posture, sleeping position, and their own basic endurance and strength. Yes, it is possible to strengthen these muscles.
Too much pressure on the vertebrae and their adjacent musculature can cause headaches. This pressure can come from looking up for an extended period of time (for example, when painting the ceiling) or down (for example, a poorly adjusted work station). Over time, this can lead to a deterioration of the joints such as arthritis.
A poor sleeping position may be contributing significantly to your headaches, especially if they are worse in the morning. In particular, avoid sleeping on your stomach. This position causes a prolonged rotation of the neck, leading to muscular overload and uneven joint pressure, which in turn can cause muscle stiffness lasting several hours or even days. This explains the stiffness, mainly on one side and sometimes accompanied by a headache, you may experience when waking.
It’s also relevant to mention that any head trauma, even light, can influence the health of your muscles and joints, and may also overload the nervous system.
Overstimulation of any one of these systems can lead directly or indirectly to persistent headaches.
When medication isn’t enough, it may be time to try physical therapy to evaluate the origin of your headaches. The physical therapist can also offer treatment focused on muscular relaxation, manual neck therapy, and advice on posture and appropriate exercises.