Top 5 Headache Causes & Solutions
Whether it’s pounding, throbbing or unrelenting pressure, a headache can stop you in your tracks. You might reach for a Tylenol or Advil and go about your day. But if the headache is strong enough it can cause sensitivity to light (photophobia), difficulty concentrating, problems thinking clearly and nausea and vomiting. Sometimes crawling back in bed and trying to sleep it off seems like the only option. What I found clinically is that there are five common underlying causes of people’s headaches and what makes them worse.
1. Neck and Upper Back Ligament Damage
One of the most overlooked underlying causes in my experience ligament damage in the neck and upper back. The fancy term for these headaches is cervicogenic headaches. That’s because the headaches are originating and coming from the cervical spine in the neck. Up to 20% of people who suffer headaches may be having cervicogenic headaches.
Ligaments are connective tissue that stabilizes the segments of bone. They connect bone to bone and help ensure their proper alignment. But ligaments aren’t elastic. When they’re stretched they more than a millimeter or two, they don’t snap back into position.
Stretched ligaments create ligament laxity. When that happens, the bones in your neck—your cervical vertebrae—aren’t optimally held in place. Their position can move a little bit in ways that aggravate the muscles and trigger the muscles to tighten up to try and get it back into a healthy position.
These types of headaches tend to start with a feeling of tightness in the neck or base of the skull. The tightness and pain can then wrap around the ears on one side or both and come across the front of the forehead, perhaps settling above or behind the eyes. These sensations are caused by tight muscles pulling down on the back of the neck and the skull.
People with a history of whiplash injuries often have cervicogenic headaches. When people think of a whiplash injury they seem to imagine a car accident. Getting they head whipped back and forth or from side to side. And while automobile accidents create whiplash injuries, there are much more common causes.
If you’ve ever played a sport when you were younger and had any collisions, that can cause damage to the ligaments in the cervical spine. These injuries are frequently seen in soccer, field hockey, ice hockey, football and many other sports. Or if you’ve fallen off a horse, down some stairs or out of a tree (yes, that happened to me once), all of those can damage ligaments.
Cervicogenic headaches may appear soon after an injury, or it could take years for it to show up. It may even take several injuries to create enough damage to cause problems.
In addition to knowing if you’ve had a history of injuries there are a couple of clues that can help you determine if you might be having cervicogenic headaches. While you’re experiencing the tightness in the neck or base of the skull, run your fingers up and down the back of your neck. Usually, there will be an area of tenderness and oftentimes a bump that you might be able to feel. The bump is caused by muscles tightening up over specific cervical vertebrae segments. And when you press on it the bump it’s tender.
Another way is if you get chiropractic care. If you’ve gone to a chiropractor and adjustments to your neck have relieved your headache, may be due to cervical vertebrae going out of alignment and then the chiropractor adjusting your neck and reestablishing healthy vertebral positions.
There are a few things you can do to help solve the problem. Strengthening exercises might be helpful for improving muscle strength in the neck, which can help the muscles keep the spine in alignment. Exercises that combine gently stretching with building strength, such as yoga and Pilates, may be especially helpful. Appropriate exercises in the gym with a well-educated trainer who knows how to work around neck injuries may also help.
Chiropractic care is effective and putting the vertebrae back in alignment and decreasing the frequency or severity of the headaches. But if you go to a chiropractor and if the adjustments are helping less and less, meaning the pain is returning more frequently than it used to, you may benefit from another solution.
Regenerative injection technique (RIT), also called prolotherapy, can heal the underlying issue of the ligament laxity. RIT is an injection against the bone that stimulates the cells that produce connective tissue to produce more connective tissue. This helps stabilize the bone segments and heals the underlying injury. In my clinical practice, I did a lot of RIT, with excellent results. I’ve had the injections done on my neck (and low back too), so I definitely practice what I preach.
Some natural products can reduce the pain and help relax the muscles. Magnesium is a mild muscle relaxant that might be helpful. Products such as Deep Blue and Biofreeze can also help.
2. Poor Sleep
Nearly 80 million Americans struggle with difficulty sleeping. Poor sleep makes it hard to cope with the demands of work and family, and decreases your ability to complete tasks. Sleep deprivation also affects your ability to pay attention, think and process information; impairs memory; and makes it harder to find the right words. And if that weren’t enough, studies show that poor sleep reduces your quality of life as much as congestive heart failure and major depression.
Poor sleep can also cause headaches. In one study, 59% of people complained that poor sleep triggered their tension-type headaches. A review of additional studies confirmed that lack of healthy sleep is a risk factor for headaches, including migraines. Read my tips on improving your sleep, read my Checklist for Better Sleep.
Dehydration headaches are caused by not having enough fluid for your body to function well.
Water is needed by the brain to manufacture hormones and neurotransmitters and to create saliva to help with digestion. It acts as a shock absorber for the brain and spinal cord, helps deliver oxygen throughout the body, lubricates joints and allows the body’s cells to grow, reproduce and survive.
When the body doesn’t have enough water, normal cellular functions suffer and tissues, such as a muscle and skin in your scalp and tighten up. And that creates headaches. Dehydration headaches can occur anywhere in the head and is typically a dull ache.
Fortunately, the solution is simple. Drink water. One general rule is to drink half your body weight in ounces of water each day. And if you feel a headache coming on, drink a glass of water. It might just help.
4. Nutrient Insufficiency
Specific nutrients have been shown in studies to help prevent migraine headaches. These include vitamin B2 (riboflavin), coenzyme Q10 and magnesium. Make sure to eat a lots fruits and vegetables, like those in an alkaline diet, and taking a good multiple vitamin and mineral supplement can help you maintain healthy levels of essential nutrients.
5. Stress Much?
Chronic stress can also contribute to causing and exacerbating headaches. Stress can be psychological or physical. Psychological stress can be from anxiety from being over scheduled or having difficulty coping with day-to-day life demands. Physical stress could be from not drinking enough water, nutritional insufficiencies, lack of sleep, and ligament damage, all of which I already discussed.
Taking steps to reduce stress and deal with what’s happening in your life is empowering. Taking some time every day just for yourself, to help yourself heal, to help yourself calm down, is very important. And it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time. Meditating for 10 minutes every day has phenomenal health benefits. To create a plan to naturally reduce your stress, follow my tips in the blog, Top Natural Ways to De-Stress.
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Kundermann B, Krieg JC, Schreiber W, Lautenbacher S. The effect of sleep deprivation on pain. Pain Res Manag. 2004;9(1):25-32. [Article]
Ong JC, Stepanski EJ, Gramling SE. Pain coping strategies for tension-type headache: possible implications for insomnia? J Clin Sleep Med. 2009;5(1):52-56. [Article]
Page P. Cervicogenic headaches: an evidence-led approach to clinical management. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2011;6(3):254-266. [Article]
Schwedt TJ. Preventive Therapy of Migraine. Continuum (Minneap Minn). 2018;24(4, Headache):1052-1065. [Article]
The Water in You. 2018. USGS. Accessed September 9, 2018. [Web page]
Tran DP, Spierings EL. Headache and insomnia: their relation reviewed. Cranio. 2013;31(3):165-170. [Article]
Yablon LA, Mauskop A. Magnesium in headache. In: Vink R, Nechifor M, eds. Magnesium in the Central Nervous System. Adelaide (AU)2011. [Book]
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