202Have you ever seen someone at work or in a difficult situation holding their head? What was your first initial thought? Most of us would assume either that they’re under extreme stress, or that they have a headache.
In fact, you may be right on both counts. Both physical and emotional stress can cause tension headaches. They can also trigger cervicogenic and migraine headaches, both of which can leave you effectively disabled for the remainder of your day.
You may struggle with chronic or recurring headache pain yourself, and if you do, you’re probably tired of taking pain-relieving medication all the time just to be able to do things you want to do. Maybe it’s time you found a better answer by consulting with a licensed physical therapist about your pain.
Physical therapy can ease your headache symptoms by treating their underlying causes, giving you a safer, more sustainable headache management strategy.
HOW DOES STRESS CAUSE HEADACHES?
Emotional stress and physical stress go hand in hand, with either capable of causing or aggravating the other. Being in stressful situations can cause muscles to tighten up as the body goes into “fight or flight” mode.
When tightness affects the small muscles at the base of the skull (such as the RCPM muscle in the neck) those muscles may pull on a pain-sensitive membrane in the head called the dura mater. The dura mater responds by sending out waves of pain, giving you a classic tension headache.
Headaches that begin in the neck are referred to as “cervicogenic headaches.” These headaches are often caused by imbalances or alignment problems in the cervical spine. These imbalances place the neck muscles under physical stress, producing both headaches and neck pain. Emotional stress can also play a role in cervicogenic headaches, since the muscle tightness they create can help to pull the neck out of alignment.
Migraines are the most dreaded of headaches, and knowing that someone has one is sure to make you wince if you’ve ever experienced one yourself. In fact, a migraine attack may go far beyond the crushing headache it is notorious for producing, causing symptoms such as:
- Sound and/or light sensitivity
- Nausea and vomiting
- Visual distortions known as “auras”
While it’s hard to pin down the underlying causes behind migraines, many of the triggers are well known. Stress, various foods, bright lights, loud sounds, weather changes, and hormonal swings can cause migraines, as well as physical overexertion or emotional strain.
HOW PHYSICAL THERAPY CAN RELIEVE STRESS-RELATED HEADACHES
While pain-relieving drugs such as NSAIDs (Aleve, Tylenol, ibuprofen) can relieve the occasional headache, what they can’t do is address the stresses that lead to chronic headache problems. For that level of relief, you need to see a physical therapist.
Our physical therapist will conduct a thorough evaluation that includes an examination of your neck and cervical spine, discussion of your symptoms, and analysis of lifestyle factors that may be sources of stress. This background allows us to create a headache management program largely rooted in the management of stress and its effects.
Your physical therapy treatment program may include:
- Chiropractic adjustments to correct cervical spinal alignment
- Ergonomic adjustments such as changing your computer monitor height (to prevent constant neck droop)
- Mindfulness exercises such as yoga to help you add more serenity to your daily life
- Suggestions for changing or sleep position or trying a different kind of pillow
- Dry needling to ease stress-induced tension and pain
- Massage therapy to relax tight neck muscles
- Exercises to limber up your neck or strengthen your neck muscles
OTHER CAUSES OF STRESS-RELATED HEADACHES
There may be a physical cause behind your stress-related headaches. An accident or injury to the neck or back can contribute to headaches. Poor posture and arthritis are two other potential causes.
Depression and anxiety are similar emotions to stress that can also lead to headaches. In general, you can expect stretching and strength training to be part of your treatment. The treatment of your stress-related headaches will depend in part on the diagnosis. For example, one course of treatment that would work for correcting your posture and strengthening the neck muscles might not be appropriate if your headaches are the result of a past injury.
Other options that your physical therapist might employ can include:
- McKenzie therapies
- Cervical traction
- Body mobilization
- Hot and cold compressions
- Soft tissue mobilization
Besides the treatment you will receive during your physical therapy sessions at the clinic, your therapist will also recommend exercises, stretches, and lifestyle changes that you can make at home, which will all contribute to eliminating your headaches.