UNDERSTANDING AND TREATING HEADACHES
By Todd Holm, CNMT
Headaches are one of the most common dysfunctions we humans experience.
Here are the reasons most headaches occur.
Our cervical vertebrae have many muscles attaching to them. Some move our head up or down. Some muscles move our head sideways. Often our headache pain is in relationship to our behavior. That makes our headaches very personalized for each person. For example: A window washer is going to be looking up and down while washing the windows. A tennis fan will be moving their head sideways in constant repetition. These repeating movements contract the muscles over and over again. This leads to a tight, shortened muscle(s). A short tight muscle(s) cannot absorb as much water as a soft lengthened muscle. Let us repeat that…..
A shortened, tight, overused muscle cannot absorb the same amount of fluid that a soft, lengthened muscle can. This is dehydration of muscle tissue. Muscle tissue is as much fascia or connective tissue as it is muscle fiber. Therefore when muscles are overused and shortened, they cannot hold as much water because the fibers are packed tighter next to one another. Fascia doesn’t have nerve innervation or much of a blood supply so it only responds to what is happening to the muscle fibers. It helps hold the muscles form, whatever the muscle is asking for at that time.
When muscle fibers shorten and stay shortened we call that a spasm. We may not feel the muscle shaking, sometimes we do, but it is still a spasm. The constant tension of the shortened muscle causes pain usually for one or more of three possible reasons.
1. Entrapment of a blood vessel ~ The tight fibers literally squeeze a vein or artery, thus reducing the amount of blood flow to an area. The result is pain further down that “tributary” of reduced blood flow. Example: The back of the neck is very tight, muscles are ‘squeezing’ an artery carrying blood to your temple, resulting in reduced blood flow. This in turn reduces the amount of oxygen being carried to the temple muscle. Have you ever noticed an enlarged blood vessel in your forehead when experiencing a headache? The end result is pain, a headache.
2. Entrapment of a nerve ~ The same scenario can cause the ‘squeezing’ or ‘pinching’ of a nerve(s). The resulting effect causes irritation to the nerve(s). This results in a ‘referral’ pain, further down the path of the inflamed, irritated nerve(s). We call this a “trigger point” when the entrapment is in the middle of a muscle. The nerve(s) may be near a boney joint, in between a muscle or directly exiting between bones. If the nerve is compressed between bones or at a joint over an extended period of time, it could cause permanent damage to that nerve.
3. Structural change ~ If a chronic muscle spasm/contraction continues without lengthening back to its original state, it will eventually cause a structural change resulting in a mechanical dysfunction. That could be a vertebrae moved out of place or a loss of the cervical curve or a forward head posture that not only causes headaches but upper back pain due to the counter-strain.
Now that we understand the mechanics of the body and how it can cause dysfunction let’s look at the behavior that motivates an individuals headaches.
In my 30 years of treating headaches I can give you some common denominators that I have seen first hand.
1. COFFEE! ~ Number one on my list. Coffee is a major diuretic, and can dry out your tissues faster than you can say “Double Latte!”. Just like alcohol, after a cup or two the flood gates open. Many people have a cup/mug first thing in the morning. Think about this..if you sleep for 6 to 8 hours a night, your body is still functioning, right? Your organs are working while you sleep, which means that your body is using water to make it happen. So…when you wake, you are naturally dehydrated. All your body wants/needs is some H2O to replenish its deleted water stores. Now, you put in a diuretic instead. Ie…coffee. You don’t even break even, instead you start your day below even. Studies have shown that it is not the coffee or caffeine that wakes you up. Instead they have found it is actually the hot water, by dilating the blood vessels to the brain! So…have a nice cool glass of water first thing in the morning, then go for your coffee (if you must) after. Or..have a mug of hot/warm water to jump start your morning. Strong tea if consumed too often, combined with a lack of water, can also dry out our bodies.
2. ALCOHOL ~ Many people like to relax with a drink or two each day. Some like more than that. Another diuretic that after one or two opens the flood gates! There is some truth to the old saying that you only rent beer! If you are a moderate to heavy drinker and suffer from headaches, try having a glass of water after every two drinks. Wine can dry you out too, especially red wines. The sulphites don’t help either. Because alcohol depletes vitamins, try taking a C and B before leaving home and keep a few in your pocket to take before the evening is finished. You just might eliminate the possible headache/hangover in the morning.
3. SODIUM ~ Many call "salt" the number one health destroyer. I believe that these days it is really sugar. Salt absorbs water. One of the mechanisms that a muscle utilizes for contraction and relaxation is a sodium - potassium pump. A muscle needs sodium to function properly. One of the reasons that athletes drink sports drinks is to replace the lost sodium through sweating. I am not an advocate of of drinking sports drinks if one not exercising and sweating. We rarely need more sodium in our diets. Most people consume too much salt in our western diet, thus drying out our muscles and all other tissues in the body that need the thing we cannot live a week without. Water. Most of us know that thirst that shows up with impunity after eating pizza or Chinese food. Many restaurants heavily salt their food to make it tastier. There are quite a number of restaurants that use MSG as a regular additive to many meals.