This article first appeared in Today's Dallas Woman, Sept. 1997

Understanding Headaches

If you're like most people, headaches are a common part of your life. You may hear comments such as "Can I borrow an aspirin?" pretty frequently around your office or home. That's because headaches are experienced by many people on a fairly frequent basis.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, an estimated 45 million Americans experience chronic headaches, and for at least half of these people, the problem can be debilitating.

Headache is one of the most common causes of lost workdays in the United States. Migraine victims alone lose over 65 million workdays because of headache pain. Headache sufferers can spend up to $4 billion a year in medication. In addition, headaches are proving very costly for the American workforce -- they represent $25 billion in lost productivity each year.

What makes headaches challenging for the health care community is that many people try to relieve symptoms by popping an aspirin or taking a hot shower to relax. In some cases, these methods do relieve the pain of mild headaches. But in many situations, headaches are a symptom of something in the body gone awry.

To understand headaches better, it's important to understand the relationship of the skull (or "occipital bone") to the rest of the body. The skull sits atop the upper spine, supported by seven cervical vertebrae. These bony structures hold the heavy skull bone with help from a natural curvature. But if any of those vertebrae is out of alignment, the curvature goes flat and nerves leading from the vertebrae become pinched. As a result, muscles in the neck and head become starved for oxygen, and release chemicals that transmit pain signals to the brain.

In our practice, we treat a lot of people who have chronic headaches because their spines -- especially their upper backs and cervical areas -- are out of alignment. Some of these patients come to us because they're victims of auto accidents. Some come during their pre-menstrual cycle. Many of our patients suffer because of poor posture, which can also knock the cervical vertebrae out of alignment.

With so many people spending their time hunched over computers and steering wheels and slumped on sofas and in bed, bad posture is more the norm than the exception.

Poor posture and lack of cervical curvature are only two causes of headaches. The effects of tension on head pain have long been known by the health care community and Madison Avenue. You may remember how one aspirin company several years ago described "Excedrin Headaches" on television commercials. Although these headaches had different causes, they all shared one thing in common: They were all caused by stressful situations.

Although you might suffer from a tension headache, your "head pain" has actually originated elsewhere. Next time you're tense or under pressure, take a careful look at yourself. If your shoulders are hunched, your neck is tight and your jaw tense, it's a good bet that your head is going to start throbbing very soon.

Sinus headaches are another type of headache commonly seen in spring and fall. Sinus suffers experience their pain around the nasal bone, under the eyes, and under the temples. Sinus pain can come in all forms ranging from a dull ache to throbbing agony.

Many people attempt to cure sinus problems with over-the-counter medications that can provide short-term help. However, chronic sinus pain could mean something else. The sinus tissues might be swollen shut, which prevents drainage. Another cause of chronic sinus pain is poor neck and upper back alignment, which commonly affects "sinus sites."

There is also a type of headache classified as "vascular", which occurs when the blood vessels that supply the scalp and brain dilate. The most common of vascular-related head pain are migraine headaches and cluster headaches.

Common symptoms of migraine headaches include an excruciatingly pounding head, long-lasting symptoms (up to three or four days), an increased sensitivity to light and a hesitancy to move. On the other end of the vascular scale is the cluster headache which are marked by sudden attacks of head pain that start suddenly, quickly reach a maximum intensity and are gone within hours. Unlike migraines, the pain with cluster headaches occur typically on one side of the head.

Vascular headaches have often been blamed on heredity, stress and food allergies. Often, a spine that is out of alignment will irritate the nerves that set off migraines or cluster headaches.

Many people are tired of taking over-the-counter and perscription drugs for their headaches. More and more headache sufferers are turning to healthier methods of dealing with their pain such as nutrition, massage, yoga and lifestyle changes. Some research has shown that chiropractic is one of the most effective methods for treating chronic headaches. These studies showed a higher percentage of people that were headache free for longer periods of time vs. people on certain medications. The only side effect from chiropractic treaments was a feeling of well being.

Because headaches stem from different sources, accept them as a warning, and take the appropriate steps to get rid of the problem -- and hopefully, an aching head.

Dr. Suzan J. Smith is a chiropractor in Carrollton, TX. She teaches yoga on a regular basis and has released a yoga video for beginners and intermediates and a second yoga video for pregnant women.

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