Is Your Headache Really a Neck Problem?

Have you ever had a headache where the pain feels like it’s coming from the base of your skull and then wrapping around to behind your eye? This kind of pain pattern is usually just on one side of the head and it is almost always caused by restriction in your neck.

Unlike many headaches that originate from pain-sensitive tissue inside your head itself, cervicogenic headaches arise form irritations in the neck which cause a radiating pattern of nerve pain into the head. So, the quickest way to get rid of this kind of headache is to leave the head alone and work on the joints and muscles of the neck. Most people that come to me with this kind of headache get INSTANT relief after a neck adjustment. Often the neck problem has been building for a while though, so they typically need a few more treatments later on to prevent the neck problem from creating another headache.

If you have a pain pattern like I described, I bet you will also discover some really tender spots on the back of your neck on the same side as the pain. If so, get an adjustment right away. There’s no need to spend any more time in pain – get better today!
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What Causes Headaches?

headache 6As I mentioned last time, when you have a headache it’s not actually your brain that hurts, but all the stuff around it. You probably know that there are many types of headaches including migraines, tension-type, cervicogenic, and cluster headaches. I have insulin dependent diabetes, and I occasionally get headaches after my blood sugar has dropped too low and is rapidly rising. Some people seem to be very sensitive to atmospheric pressure fluctuations and get headaches with changing weather. Similarly, others notice that windy days cause headaches for them. My theory is that most headaches ultimately result from pressure changes – whether that is in the pressure of the blood flow changing in the vessels around the brain or physical pressure from swelling tissue. For me the real question then is: What caused the pressure change? Here lies the problem because there are hundreds, if not thousands of ways that pressure (internal or external) can be created. The good news is that many types of headaches respond very well to chiropractic treatment.  The exact mechanism is not entirely understood, but making changes to the joints and soft tissues of the neck help to relieve the pressure. I’ve had several headache patients come to me after exhausting every other remedy they could find, and then noticed almost immediate relief with chiropractic care.

Here’s just one small example:
“I started getting excessive pain in my shoulders and especially my neck.  I left it for too long and started getting major headaches.  I came to see Dr. Smith and after one session my headache was gone for 3 days.  With consistent treatment my headaches are gone.” ~Melody Spencer

If you have been getting headaches and haven’t found a good solution, try chiropractic!
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Get Your Head Examined!

HeadExaminedIf you did actually get your head examined… I mean REALLY examined, you would find all sorts of interesting things! Your skull, which seems like one really big bone, actually consists of at least 22 bones (depending on how you count them – but that’s another story) which originally began as 44 separate bony elements during your fetal development. As an adult, these bones are not completely fused, but actually have joints between them which have some movement. This was more evident at the time of your birth, when some of your skull bones actually had to overlap each other in order to deliver your giant head. After you were born, these bones slid neatly back into place, and as you grew the soft joints between your skull bones became more rigid and fixed. All this to protect the most important piece of tissue you own… your brain. See, your brain is soft and spongy, and relatively delicate – but very important for your survival, so it has to be wrapped in a suit of armour. Sometimes this backfires though, because if your skull gets jostled around too much, your brain bounces around inside this hard shell causing injuries known as concussions. But as delicate and intricate as the brain is, it doesn’t actually have pain sensors. It’s the layers around the brain that feel pain.

At the base of your brain, some really important nerves called cranial nerves branch out and wind their way around to different parts of your head and neck. They become responsible for your five senses and control many of the muscles in your face and neck, allowing you to talk and do all sorts of other useful things. But all this goodness and intricacy packed into your melon makes it heavy, so you also need some strong muscles in your neck and upper back to keep it from flopping over.

Yes, your head is pretty fascinating indeed- and next week, I’ll talk about some of the things that can go wrong with it!
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The Truth About TENS

TENS units (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) can be helpful for pain control, but it is important to know what they can and cannot do. Many people mistakenly believe that these devices will heal your injuries, but in reality they are just disrupting the pain signals being transmitted through your nervous system. This video briefly describes how a TENS unit works, and how it is different than laser therapy.

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Typing Technology

Typewriter2

The first typewriter I ever used looked a lot like this one.
(photo source)

Technology is awesome – but sometimes no matter how hard we try to make things easier, we end up just trading in one set of problems for another.

One example is the evolution of typing. Have you ever typed on a manual, mechanical typewriter? We had an old one when I was growing up which looked very similar to the one in the photo. I really enjoyed plunking away on it, but I never did get very good at it. (It’s much harder to correct your mistakes on a manual machine!)  I was fascinated by the intricate system of hinges, levers and springs which resulted in the rapid stamping of the paper with the appropriate letter. This machine was quicker than writing by hand, but required deliberate and forceful striking of the keys. If you didn’t press hard enough you would get a poor quality letter, and if you tried to go too fast, the mechanical arms wouldn’t have time to spring back resulting in a log-jam tangle of typebars.

Typing in those days was a task that involved much more than finger dexterity – it used the wrist, hand and elbow to produce the required motions. It was actually hard work, and it couldn’t be done for hours on end without significant pain and fatigue. Our transition into modern computer keyboards have greatly minimized the force and gross movement required to type and we can reach much higher typing speeds than was ever possible in the 1960’s. Unfortunately, sometimes the tiny rapidly repeated movements cause more damage than larger, slower ones.

There are more reported cases of repetitive strain injuries (such as carpal tunnel syndrome) than ever before. Does this have to do with the way we type? Is it just because more people are typing more often? Is it because we are complaining about pain more often than previous generations did? All I know is that that our rapid-fire typing for prolonged periods of time has the potential to create injury, and the only reason we can type as often and as fast as we do with so little movement is because of the technology we have created. I think we may have just traded one type (pun intended) of injury for another.

So… type slower, take breaks, stretch, eat well, get exercise, go to a chiropractor… all that good stuff!

Oh, and if you have never typed on a manual typewriter from the 60’s, I highly recommend you find a way to try it. There is something magical and satisfying about that tactile experience.
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Your Remarkable Wrist

Carpus_(left_hand)_-_animation01a

Image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carpus_%28left_hand%29_-_animation01a.gif

Did you know that you have EIGHT bones in your wrist? This intricate structure is critical for practically every activity that you do throughout the day. Anyone who has broken their wrist and had to wear a cast for a few weeks has firsthand knowledge of this! Each of the colored bones you see in this image are connected with ligaments in various directions creating a flexible, yet strong and rigid structure. Layers of connective tissue, muscles and nerves all traverse this important area. The unique shapes and arrangements of these bones work together to allow you to bend your wrist up and down, side to side, and even around in circles. Speaking of circles, are you hypnotized yet by watching this image going around and around? I know I am – in fact it is distracting me from finishing this post!

Anyway…do you see that the orange and dark blue bones have outcroppings on them? Okay, now imagine a broad band of tissue connecting those two outcroppings, and you have just created the infamous carpal tunnel. That’s where some major tendons pass through which allow you to close your fingers into a fist. Also in the tunnel is the median nerve, which is the one that gives you some nasty pain and numbness if the tunnel gets too tight (more on that next week). Suffice it to say, your wrist is a pretty amazing and intricate structure, and it’s proper function depends upon each bone and joint doing what it is supposed to do. The more I study the human wrist and all its components, the more I am fascinated by it.

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Nasty Nerve Pain

sciatic nerveSciatica (Sigh-ATTIC-uh) is a condition where your sciatic nerve is irritated and causes very painful symptoms.  Here’s a quick anatomy lesson: Your sciatic nerves (yes, you have two… one on the left and one on the right) are each made up of 5 consecutive nerve roots located near the bottom of your spinal cord in your lower back.  These nerve roots exit your spine through small openings bordered by discs in front and spinal joints in the back.  Each nerve then travels down the back of your leg, into your calf and the bottom of your foot all the way to the tips of your toes. When sciatic nerves are inflamed, irritated, stretched or pinched, it can cause extreme pain to some or all of the regions along its length. You may have this problem if you experience any of the following symptoms:

• Sharp shooting pain in your back with certain movements

• Pain in your buttocks and/or leg that is worse when sitting

• Burning or tingling down your leg, usually only on one side

• Weakness, numbness or difficulty moving your leg

The term sciatica describes your symptoms, but not the actual cause.  The cause can be as simple as a local muscle spasm or as serious as spinal degenerative diseases.  You’ll need to have an examination to figure out what might be causing your pain.  It shouldn’t come as any surprise that chiropractic is usually very effective for treating sciatica.  This is because most of the time, the problem turns out to be joint swelling, disc bulging or muscle spasm, and chiropractic adjustments are effective at treating all three.

But sometimes there is a more sinister cause, and the sooner it gets diagnosed, the sooner you can get the treatment you need.
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Spontaneous Cracking

Do you crack your own back? Have you ever wondered if you should? Here is my advice as a chiropractor:

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How to Get Low Back Pain

ladder fallIf you haven’t had mechanical back pain for a while and want to enjoy the excruciating benefits, try participating in one or more activities from the following categories:

1. Traumatic injuries
Some effective ways to create low back pain include slipping on icy sidewalks, falling down stairs, and other similar activities. Falling off ladders is a popular activity that you can do year-round, inside or outside. Aggressive sports, especially those involving a sudden impact or significant force work well too. Try hockey, football or rugby, but other sports such as basketball, figure skating and soccer will also get the job done. Vehicle collisions can produce significant low back pain, but may include other unwanted injuries as well, so you may want to avoid this method.

2. Repetitive strain
Repetitive strain injuries are caused by many small movements that eventually accumulate into significant damage. There are thousands of ways to participate in this form of injury. Try vacuuming or gardening, lifting toddlers, or shoveling snow. But don’t lift or push or shovel anything too heavy, or you will revert to the trauma category.  Instead, lift, push or shovel very small loads, and do it over and over and over again for a prolonged period. You may already have a job that is well suited for this category! Ask your employer about tasks involving bending, twisting and lifting – especially if you can repeat the task several hundred times per day. You’ll know that you have done it right when you suddenly get back pain after something simple like putting on your socks in the morning.

3. Spinal degeneration
Finally, you can create some high quality back pain through degeneration.  Unfortunately, this category is a little harder to do on purpose.  It usually involves accumulated years of participation in the repetitive strain category so that your joints begin to wear out.  Genetics are important for this category, so make sure that you choose parents who have had long term degenerative back conditions. You can also develop appropriate weaknesses through participating in the traumatic injuries category. Again, you will usually have to wait for several years for the degeneration to really set in, but with some perseverance, you can create debilitating pain which will last into your senior years.

Oh, and if you want the back pain to stay – so you can really enjoy it – do NOT go to a chiropractor.
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Lumbar Spine Anatomy

Lumbar Spine model with labels

Lumbar Spine (Lower Back)

Lower back pain is so common that almost everyone will have it at some point in their life.  In order to understand why and how back pain occurs – and more importantly, what can be done about it – a quick lesson in anatomy is very helpful.

Your spine is made up of repeated segments of bone called vertebrae, and you have five of these bones in your lower back.  Each vertebrae consists of the large, thick vertebral body in the front and the facet joints and spinous processes (those are the bumps you can feel through your skin) in the back.  The vertebrae are inter spaced with fibrous discs which help with shock absorbancy and support.  The spinal cord is a large bundle of nerves starting from your brain which travel through holes in the vertebrae down the length of your spine.  Between each vertebrae, some of these nerves exit the spinal cord (labeled as nerve roots on the diagram) and travel to various locations in the body.  An important nerve in your lower back is the sciatic nerve which is made up of 4 or 5 nerve roots which join together and run down the back of your leg.  The facet joints, located at the back of each vertebra – just behind the nerve roots, allow bending and twisting motions in the lower back.  Layered on top of the structures in the diagram are multiple configurations of ligaments and muscles in every conceivable orientation to allow you to move, and which hold everything together and provide protection, support, and strength.

The primary concern of chiropractic is to maintain and encourage proper movement in these bony elements which helps to ensure the proper health and function of the surrounding tissue. (Nerves, ligaments, muscles, discs, etc.)  Two of the most common culprits of low back pain are irritations of the facet joints and problems with the discs.  In both cases, the real trouble begins when these disruptions become significant enough to irritate the nerve roots.
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