Headaches: A Real Pain in the Neck

          Headaches are one of the most commonly experienced aliments today, affecting over 42 million Americans each year(1). Identified as the fifth most common reason for outpatient in medical care, it is estimated that 1/3 of people in the United States will suffer from severe headaches at some point in life(2). Each year, almost 10 million doctors’ visits are made for headaches, and they account for 157 million lost work days per year. At The Crox Chiropractic Clinic, approximately 25% of new patients are initially seen because of headaches.

          Chiropractors around the world have helped millions of headache suffers. This is because chiropractors specializes iin correcting spinal problems, and as many as 70% of all headaches are caused by spinal dysfunction in the upper neck(3). The purpose of this newsletter is to explain what causes these headaches, and highlight why chiropractic is the most appropriate and effective treatment method.

Brain Confusion

          Doctors used to think that headaches were caused by a problem in the head. We have since learned that our brain often has difficulty identifying the exact location of some problems. For example, several nerves from the head and face travel to the brain through a portal called the trigeminal nucleus. Certain signals from our eyes, face, sinuses, and brain blood vessels all travel through this nucleus. Therefore, if pain signals are coming from any of these areas, our brain gets the same signal – my head hurts! However, nerve signals from joints and muscles of the upper neck also travel through the same nucleus. As a result, the brain perceives the head and the upper neck as one and the same thing. Therefore, the brain of some with an upper neck problem will be “fooled” into thinking that there is a head problem. As such, when the muscles and joints in the upper neck are stimulated experimentally in normal volunteers, they produce headaches(4). This pain is usually perceived over the back of the head, but may spread across the head to behind the eye. Medically, this is called a cervicogenic (coming from the neck) headache.

Stress and Tension Headaches

          Often patients present with headaches that they attribute to stress and tension many have been told that the headaches are psychological. This is far from the truth.

          As far back as 1995, a team of researchers at the University of Maryland in Baltimore discovered a connective tissue bridge (A) from muscle in the upper neck (C) to the membrane covering the brain and spinal cord (B)(5).


          They found that increased tension on the connective tissue bridge pulses abnormally on the membrane and causes headaches. Anything which cases tightness in the muscle (C) has the potential to trigger a headache.

          Stress alone is rarely enough to cause a headache. If it were, many more people would have constant, daily headaches. However, stress can increase muscle tone or tightness, and when combined with a pre-existing upper neck problem, can pull enough on the connective tissue bridge to cause a headache.

Chiropractic Can Help!

New research shows that spinal manipulation by chiropractors is an effective treatment option for most headaches. A report released in 2001 by researchers at Duke University found in that spinal manipulation resulted in almost immediate improvement for headaches which originate in the neck, and had significantly fewer side effects and longer-lasting relief than commonly prescribed medication(6). In a randomized controlled trial, researchers in Denmark found that chiropractic treatment decreases the use of pain medication by 36% and number of headache hours by 69%, in only three weeks(7). Also, study in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics found that chiropractic manipulations is not only effective in relieving headaches, but those who ceased care after 4 weeks experienced a continued sustained therapeutic benefit, in contrast to leading medications(8).


          The primary focus of chiropractic treatment is the correction and stabilization of spinal problems. When a bone of the spine shifts out of place or isn’t moving properly, it pinches or irritates nerves and causes muscles to tighten. When this occurs in the upper neck, the nerves which are pinched join with others from the head and face, triggering a headache sensation in the brain. The muscle that tightens pulls on a  connective tissue bridge attached to the brain which also causes headaches. By re-alignment the spine and restoring proper motion with treatment therapy, and exercise, a chiropractor works to reduce nerve irritation and muscle tightness, thereby correcting the cause of headaches. This will reduce their frequency, duration, and severity. The success of chiropractic treatment has helped to prove that headaches are a really a pain in the neck.

  • Sweis M, Headaches of Cervical Origin, Dynamic Chiropractic, Apil 10 1995, Volume 13, Issue 8.
  • McKechnie B, Headaches and Chiropractic Practice. Dynamic Chiropractic, June 4 1993, Volume 11. Issue 12
  • Bronfort G, et al. Efficacy of Spinal Manipulation for Chronic Headache, a Systematic Review. J Manipulative Physiological Therapeutics. 2001 sep;24(7);457-66
  • Boduk N, “Is It My Neck?” Cervicogenic Headache. Headache, fall 1998, vol 9, no. 3
  • Cervicogenic Headache, Foundation of Chiropractic Education and Research. Chiropractic Healthways, issue 137
  • McCrory D, et al. Behavioral and Physical Treatments for Tension-type and Cervicogenic Headache. Duke University Evidence-based Practice Center.
  • Nilsson N, et al. The Effect of Spinal Manipulation is the Treatment of Headache. J Manipulative Physiotherapy. 1997; 20(5)Jun: 362-330
  • Nelson CF, et al. the Nelson Migraine Study. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 19992; 22(6)Oct: 517-522


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