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Why Your Chronic Headaches May Be a Pain in the Neck

chronic headaches

Do you suffer from chronic headaches? Maybe it’s a daily issue, maybe once a week, maybe even less often, but one thing’s for sure—when a chronic headache kicks in, it can be a real pain in the neck, literally. In order to effectively address chronic headaches, you have to first determine if the pain is caused by a problem in your neck. Let’s take a look at a few neck issues that can cause headaches.

Weak Neck Muscles

The head, on average, weighs about ten pounds, so when the neck muscles are weak, it can make your head feel a bit like a bowling ball that your neck can’t quite balance. There are many muscles that, along with the cervical spine, work together to help support the neck and aid movement. The neck muscles that most commonly become weak and cause headaches include the deep neck flexors. These stretch vertically along either side of the front of the cervical spine. Weakness in any of the neck muscles, however, can create stress on the cervical discs, tendons, and facet joints, increasing the chances of chronic headaches.

Additionally, poor posture can weaken neck muscles and the muscles and tendons that attach to the skull at the back of the head. This can lead tendon problems (e.g., degeneration, tears), further lessening their ability to help support the head, leading to more headaches. There are many things that define poor posture, but perhaps in our modern world today, the most common is being constantly hunched over our electronic devices.

Muscle spasms can not only weaken the neck muscles, but the spasms themselves can actually tug at the dura, the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord, which in and of itself can lead to headaches. If you don’t treat what’s causing the spasms, the headaches are destined to continue.

Finally, muscles may be weakened when trigger points in the muscle tighten, shooting pain to the head—this is called referred pain.

Irritated Neck Nerves

There are nerves that live along the back of the head, and when these become irritated in some way, headaches can result. If the nerve irritation is left unaddressed, headaches will continue to flare. There are a number of things that can irritate the occipital nerves, the nerves that most commonly lead to headaches. These include poor posture (discussed above), the loss of the cervical lordosis (the curve in the neck), neck instability, and so on.

 Loss of the Cervical Lordosis

Your neck should have a gentle inward C-shaped curve—this curve is called cervical lordosis. This curve works with other gentle counter-curves in the spine to evenly distribute the weight of your head between the cervical discs in the front of the neck and the facet joints in the back. When you lose or straighten your cervical lordosis, the neck muscles at back of the skull can get irritated. A normal neck curve is important, and without it, nerve irritation and headaches are bound to follow. They key to treating headaches caused by a loss of the cervical lordosis is to address the straightening of the neck curve.

Neck Ligament Instability

Neck ligaments work with the muscles, tendons, and spine to facilitate proper movement and provide support.  When this is out of whack, it may lead to chronic headaches. When ligaments overstretch or become injured this creates instability, and the nerves and spine, which rely on them for support can also become irritated. In addition, the muscles will step up to try to do the job of the ligaments, causing the muscles to become overworked as well. Neck instability can be easily diagnosed DMX technology, a video X-ray taken as the neck is in motion.

Trauma, such as a car accident, and wear-and-tear degeneration with aging can cause neck ligament instability. Headaches are a common effect of neck ligament instability, either due to the instability or the problems in other neck structures created by the instability.

Neck Joint Injury

Injuries to the neck can occur from a variety of accidents, such as car crashes, falls, sports injuries, and so on. Facet joints in the neck live at the back of the cervical spine, and injuries to the neck can damage these joints. When these joints are injured, particularly the upper cervical joints, C0–C3, this can lead to chronic headaches. You may have fallen and not even realized you injured your neck joints, but if chronic headaches have suddenly set in, it’s a good idea to have your neck joints examined. Arthritis in the neck joints can also cause headaches.

If your chronic headache pain is due to a problem in your neck, just popping a few pain pills isn’t going to stop your headaches from coming back. The only way to treat chronic headache pain due to the issues we discussed above is to treat the neck. Later this week, we’ll discuss several treatments for the neck issues above that may be able to address your chronic headaches.