A common complaint of people with headaches is that they also have neck pain. Some people even say that they feel like the cause of their headaches is from a problem in their cervical spine (neck).
In this article, I’m going to make connections between the cervical spine and headache pain. The two are absolutely related in many cases and each can contribute to the other kind of like a dog chasing its tail.
First, we need to discuss some basics of human anatomy. Hang with me on this because by laying the foundation of understanding the basics, it will help us when we dig in a little deeper.
Anatomy and Headaches
The cervical spine has significant neurological involvement with the Parasympathetic Autonomic Nervous System (PANS). The PANS is the “rest and digest” portion of the central nervous system.
The brainstem (which is housed in the cervical spine, a.k.a. “neck”) has an overwhelming influence on the PANS. When there is degenerative disc disease, abnormal spinal curvature, or irritation to the brainstem, it can throw the nervous system out of balance.
When the nervous system gets out of balance, there can be an over stimulation of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system (SANS) which can cause a “fight or flight” response.
I realize that these topics can be confusing so let me explain it this way. Pain activates the fight or flight response in the body by turning on the SANS fight or flight response. When the SANS is turned on, it can override the PANS and keep the nervous system in an agitated or irritated state instead of a relaxation state.
What causes Muscle Tension with Headaches?
When the nervous system is in a chronic state of fight or flight, it can cause muscle tension and tightness. The muscles in the upper back (such as the trapezius muscle) can become tight or even have knots or seem like there are hard ropes under the skin.
The neck muscles (such as the sternocleidomastoid muscle) can also tighten up and lead to headache pain. The headache pain can last for hours or days and when there is head pain, people tend to tighten up and don’t move their head or neck the same as they would when they aren’t in pain.
It’s a normal response called guarding. When you hurt, you don’t move normally because your brain is telling you to guard against the pain. The muscles are tight, you don’t move normally and the two work with each other and perpetuate the headache pain.
How is the Brainstem related to Headaches?
Also, the brainstem (in the cervical spinal column) controls more than muscles, it also has a vascular influence. When a fight or flight response is activated, blood will move from organs of the body and go to the big muscles in the arms and legs so that you can either stand your ground and fight or run really fast to get away.
Therefore, headache pain can actually cause a decrease in oxygenation to the brain which can literally make the brain unhappy. I know that this sounds elementary but I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible.
The brain needs oxygen to function properly and be healthy. When there are vascular changes, it can affect the amount of oxygen that makes it into the brain.
One way that the brain can tell you that it isn’t happy is to have headaches. The same holds true with chronic depression. A chronically inflamed brain can be a depressed brain. Both depression and headaches can have a common source.
Why does Caffeine Cause Headaches?
I think most people have heard that certain foods and substances such as chocolate or caffeine can cause headaches. This is absolutely certain for some people who are more sensitive to caffeine’s effects.
Caffeine is considered a central nervous system stimulant. It puts the brain on point. It wakes people up because it stimulates a low level fight or flight response.
The reason caffeine can cause a headache response is due to the fact that caffeine can cause a change in blood vessel diameter through an initial vasoconstrictor response followed by vasodilation.
Initially, after consumption of caffeine, there is a constriction of the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain. The initial constriction of blood vessels is followed by relaxation of the blood vessels.
The initial constriction can limit blood flow to the brain and the corresponding relaxation of the blood vessels can cause a surge of blood to make it to the brain.
Now, it should be easy to understand how caffeine can affect the fight or flight nervous system response and contribute to headaches (especially migraines) by decreasing and increasing oxygenation of the neurons in the brain.
This article isn’t about caffeine. It is about neck pain and headaches. The reason I discussed caffeine is because the mechanisms are the same.
Pressure on the brainstem in the cervical spine can create a fight or flight response just the same as caffeine. In understanding how caffeine can irritate the Sympathetic Autonomic Nervous System, it should be easy to see how neck pain that will cause activation of the same nervous system structures could most certainly cause headaches.
I always enjoy working with people who have a chronic history of headaches and head or neck pain. My treatments usually help give them great relief and it’s a really good feeling to have a patient tell me how my care has changed their life.
I’m grateful to be able to do what I do for a living and I don’t take it for granted. I’m truly blessed by helping so many patients who had no hope before coming to me.
No matter what you have tried and what you’ve been told about your neck pain or chronic headaches, my unique and proven treatment methods could possibly help you reclaim your quality of life.
Health is Happiness,
Dr. Keith Currie