Understanding the cause of headaches and migraines

What is a headache?

According to Headache Australia (2017), headaches are one of the most common symptoms experienced by humans. The cause is likely connected to chemical messengers, which send messages in the brain from one nerve cell to another. Other structures located in the head and neck region, such as blood vessels, eyes, ears, nasal sinuses, joints, and muscles can also produce headaches when placed under stress or strain. Headaches, specifically tension headaches, are pain experienced on both sides of the head, and the pain is milder in comparison to a migraine headache.

What is a migraine?

Approximately 15% of the population will experience migraines in their lifetimes. It may appear in childhood, early adolescence or early adulthood, but affects the greatest number of people between the ages of 35 and 45 years of age. Migraines present as one-sided extreme throbbing or pulsating headache that is (at minimum) moderately intense (usually aggressively painful) and can be aggravated by physical activity. Migraines are commonly associated with vomiting, nausea, and increased sensitivity to light, sound, and some smells (Headache Australia, 2017).

Is osteopathy an effective management for headaches and migraines?

According to Elevate’s osteopath, Dr. Phil Austin, author of the newly published book, “Chronic pain: A resource for effective manual therapy” (2017), alternative causes for headaches include secondary causes from an underlying pathology or a disorder that includes infection, intracranial bleeding, or space occupying lesions. Another contributing and common factor for the development of headaches includes tension in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Highly stressed individuals who grind their teeth while sleeping or clench unnoticeably during the day are at risk for tension developing in their TMJ. Osteopathy offers relief from TMJ via the application of manual therapy techniques. In combination with osteopathic treatment, many chronic TMJ patients may also need to wear individually fitted mouth guards while sleeping.

Peripheral vs. central pain mechanisms

Peripheral refers to pain mechanisms that originate outside of the brain and spinal cord, including pain being referred from these regions (e.g. arms and legs). Central pain mechanisms originate in the brain and spinal cord and are often neural in nature. Both mechanisms may present as either acute or chronic situation, and a thorough physical case taking evaluation can give great insight into management and treatment direction. Osteopaths locate the pain mechanism and aim to balance supporting body structures contributing to the root problem. Supporting structures include muscular tissue, connective tissue, and vasculature imbalances.

Osteopathic treatment for headaches and migraines also involves identifying lifestyle factors and triggers that may contribute to the development of the ailment. Osteopaths offer patient education to help reduce pain intensity, improve mood, and reduce the reliance on pharmaceuticals (Dr. Austin, 2017).

Bronfort et al. (2001) found that spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) had a better effect on managing the symptoms of a chronic headache and reducing pain associated with a chronic headache in comparison to both massage therapy, and the use of first-time prophylactic prescription medications for tension-type headaches. Over the counter pharmaceutical drugs temporarily work to reduce inflammation, and may be necessary to help alleviate the issue initially, however, this may not be the best option for long-term treatment.

Other possible contributing factors

Dehydration, high consumption of caffeine, and/or nutrient imbalances (such as low B6 and magnesium levels), may also contribute to the development of headaches and migraines. There are specific food triggers that may trigger migraine attacks, and these include (American Nutrition Association, 2015):

  • Aged or strong cheese;
  • cured meats;
  • citrus fruits;
  • fatty or fried foods;
  • MSG (monosodium glutamate);
  • food dyes, additives;
  • meat and vegetable extracts;
  • caffeine and alcohol; and
  • aspartame, nitrites, and sulphites.

Dr. Phil Austin: Elevate’s osteopath

Philip Austin is a very experienced and highly qualified osteopath. He has worked in New Zealand, UK and Sweden. Phil has worked as a lecturer and clinic tutor at the European School of Osteopathy and as a guest lecturer and examiner at other colleges around Europe. Over the last 6 years, he has combined his clinical work with research in pain medicine at the University of Edinburgh and post-doctoral research at Greenwich Hospital here in Sydney. Phil’s key areas of expertise include the treatment and management of chronic musculo-skeletal pain conditions such as tension-type headaches, frozen shoulder, neck pain and lower back pain. He also offers pain management self-help skills, treatment and information on local multidisciplinary pain programs in Sydney for other more stubborn chronic pain disorders such as fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, whiplash associated disorders and chronic pelvic pain.

If you are a current headache or migraine sufferer  call Elevate on 9252 2225  to book in to see Phil Austin. You can also book online HERE.

American Nutrition Association (2015). The role of diet in migraine headaches. Retrieved from http:// http://americannutritionassociation.org/newsletter/role-diet-migraine-headaches.
Dr. Phil Austin (2017). Chronic pain: a resource for effective manual therapy. Handspring Publishing: Edinburgh.
Headache Australia (2017). Headache and migraine week. Retrieved from http:// http://headacheaustralia.org.au/.
Bronfort G, Assendelft WJ, Evans R, Haas M, & Bouter L. Efficacy for spinal cord manipulation for chronic headaches: a systematic review. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2001;Sept24(7):457-66.
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