Chiropractic Manipulation and Headaches

Headaches are a common complaint in patients presenting for professional care, including chiropractic management. Patients with headaches seek chiropractic care because they find manipulation or adjustments applied to the cervical spine and upper back region are highly effective in reducing the intensity, frequency, and duration of their headache pain. This is because the cervical spine / neck is often the origin of the headache as the three nerves in the upper neck (C1, 2 and 3) pass through the thick, overly taught neck muscles in route to the scalp / head. When the muscles of the neck are in spasm, the nerves get “pinched” or squeezed by the overly tight muscles resulting in headache pain. Each nerve runs to a different part of the head and therefore, pain may be described as “…radiating over the top of head (sometimes into the forehead and eyes),” or, into the head and over the ear, sometimes reaching the temple. Also, an area located in the back and side of the head is the area where the C1 nerve innervates, so pain may also be reported in that location. When more than one of the C1-3 nerves is pinched, the whole side to the top of the head may be involved.

A study in the October 2009 issue of The Spine Journal reported on the benefits obtained with the utilization of spinal manipulation in the treatment of chronic cervicogenic headaches. The word “chronic” means at least three months of headache pain has been present. This new study compared two different doses of therapy using several outcome measures including the pain grade, the number of headaches in the last four weeks, and the amount of medication utilized. Data was collected every four weeks for a 24 week period and patients were treated 1-2 times/week and separated into either an 8 or a 16 treatment session with half the group receiving either spinal manipulative therapy or a minimal light massage (LM) as a control treatment.

The results of the study revealed the spinal manipulation group obtained better results than the control group at all time intervals. There was a small benefit in the group that received the greater number of treatments with the mean number of cervicogenic headaches reduced by 50% in both pain intensity and headache frequency.

The importance of this study is significant as there are many side effects to medications frequently utilized in the treatment of headaches. Many patients prefer not taking medications for this reason and spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) offers a perfect remedy for these patients. Couple SMT with dietary management, lifestyle modifications, stress management, and a natural, vitamin/herbal anti-inflammatory (such as ginger, turmeric, boswellia) when needed, and a natural, holistic approach to the management of chronic headaches is accomplished.