Chiropractic and Headaches

Chiropractic and Headaches

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This article was provided by Dr. Matthew Hitchner DC, a chiropractor at University Chiropractic and Wellness in Tuscaloosa, AL. If you’d like to learn more please visit

Headaches are one of the most common patient complaints and one of the most widespread problems treated by chiropractors.

Headaches: What’s the Cause?

There are a lot of different causes of headaches such as eye strain, lack of caffeine for the frequent coffee drinker and hunger among others. In these scenarios the headache is the result of the above issues, but these types of headaches are not what this article is concerned about.

The headaches that chiropractors treat include tension, migraine and cluster headaches. The most common headaches are the result of muscle tension stemming from the cervical region of the spine (neck). How does this tension build up? There could be a combination of factors that one could categorize as either internal or external. Improper alignment of the neck, improper movement (function) of the neck which often can happen after a trauma, degenerative joint disease and disc issues are some examples of the internal factors that may contribute to headaches. The external factors that can contribute to headaches can consist of a variety of different issues such as emotional stress, physical stress, poor sleeping position and extended periods of time spent in a fixed position (working on a computer). Chiropractic treatments will usually focus on the internal factors and try to correct them so that the external factors have less of an impact. Chiropractors may also offer patients suggestions to prevent headaches such as: stretching every 30 minutes or so if you spend long amounts of time in front of a computer. Drinking lots of water so you don’t become dehydrated (dehydration is a common cause of headaches).

The cervical spine (the part of the spine that consists of the neck) is made up of seven vertebrae (bones), Intervertebral discs (soft tissue that acts as sort of a cushion between the vertebrae), muscles, ligaments (soft tissues that connect and stabilize the joints) and nerves that exit the spinal column between each vertebra. The nerves that exit the upper region of the cervical spine go up into the head while the nerves that exit the lower region of the cervical spine go down the arms. The cervical spine, when viewed from the side should have a normal lordotic curve and when viewed from the front it should be straight. The headache can come from the muscles themselves or from an irritation of the nerves in the cervical spine.

When patients seek out chiropractic care for their headaches chiropractors will look for certain physical conditions that may be the root cause of the headaches. Some common findings by chiropractors on patients that have chronic (long term) headaches are structural; misalignments of the vertebrae such as scoliosis, which is a curve in the spine when it is viewed form the front. Another common finding is a reduction or reversal of the cervical curve when the spine is viewed from the side. This reversed or reduced cervical curve is often accompanied by anterior weightbearing of the head, which means the head is to far forward and out in front of the neck. Other common findings are functional, this would be the improper or decreased movement of the joints in the cervical spine. Typically, the structural issues are found via X-rays and the functional issues are found during the physical examination. During the physical exam the chiropractor will typically measure the range of motion in the cervical spine, palpate the joints and vertebrae as well as perform some orthopedic tests.

Treatment Plans

Once the chiropractor determines what is causing the headaches he or she will devise a treatment plan that is geared towards correcting the problem or improving it as much as they can. Most treatment plans will consist of multiple visits spread out over a few weeks. Remember, the chiropractor is trying to make changes to your spine and they’re not just treating your symptoms. Just as it takes more than one day of dieting to lose weight or several weeks in the gym to get in shape, it takes time and treatments to correct the cause of your headaches.

The chiropractic visits may consist of one or more of the following types of treatments:

Spinal Manipulation or adjustments – there are many ways to adjust the spine. Sometimes the doctor will use his hands to deliver a quick, highly accurate thrust. Other times an instrument may be used. Some doctors use special tables that have separate moving parts. With each technique the goal is relatively the same and that is to improve joint function, movement or biomechanics. This in turn can help decrease nerve irritation and decrease muscle tension.

Electric Muscle Stimulation (EMS) – It causes the muscles to contract at a high frequency which increases blood flow to the area and fatigues the muscles which decreases muscle spasm.

Cervical Traction – This treatment gently separates the vertebrae from each other, decompressing the discs and stretching the tight ligaments that connect the joints

Manual Therapy – it’s a technique involving passive movements of joints and soft tissues the goal of which is to improve tissue extensibility; increase range of motion and induce relaxation.

The chiropractor may also offer some advice on lifestyle changes such as sleeping position (specific pillow), work place ergonomics, stretches, exercises and nutritional advice.

If you have frequent headaches remember, they may be common, but they are not “normal”. So if you haven’t tried chiropractic you may want to give it a try.

Dr. Matthew Hitchner