Migraine Headaches

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Tension Headaches Versus Migraines: What’s The Difference?


Most likely, everyone reading this article has had a headache at one time or another. The American Headache Society reports that nearly 40% of the population suffers from episodic headaches each year… while 3% have chronic tension-type headaches. The United States Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 29.5 million Americans experience migraines, but tension headaches are more common than migraines at a frequency of 5 to 1. Knowing the difference between the two is important, as the proper diagnosis can guide treatment in the right direction.

TENSION HEADACHES: These typically result in a steady ache and tightness located in the neck, particularly at the base of the skull, which can irritate the upper cervical nerve roots resulting in radiating pain and/or numbness into the head. At times, the pain can reach the eyes but often stops at the top of the head. Common triggers include stress, muscle strain, or anxiety.

MIGRAINE HEADACHES: Migraines are often much more intense, severe, and sometimes incapacitating. They usually remain on one side of the head and are associated with nausea and/or vomiting. An “aura”, or a pre-headache warning, often comes with symptoms such as a bright flashing light, ringing or noise in the ears, a visual floater, and more. For migraine headaches, there is often a strong family history, which indicates that genetics may play a role in their origin.

There are many causes for headaches. Commonly, they include lack of sleep and/or stress and they can also result from a recent injury—such as a car accident, and/or a sports injury—especially when accompanied by a concussion.

Certain things can “trigger” a migraine including caffeine, chocolate, citrus fruits, cured meats, dehydration, depression, diet (skipping meals), dried fish, dried fruit, exercise (excessive), eyestrain, fatigue (extreme), food additives (nitrites, nitrates, MSG), lights (bright, flickering, glare), menstruation, some medications, noise, nuts, odors, onions, altered sleep, stress, watching TV, red wine/alcohol, weather, etc.

Posture is also a very important consideration. A forward head carriage is not only related to headaches, but also neck pain and back pain. For every inch the average 12 pound head shifts forward… adds an EXTRA ten pounds of load on the neck and upper back muscles to keep the head upright. That’s like carrying an extra 10 lb. bowling ball on top of your neck.

So, what can we do for people who suffer from headaches? Research shows that chiropractic care is highly effective for patients with both tension headaches and migraine headaches. The sooner you get your spine checked when your headache first starts… the sooner you’ll feel better. Also, many of our patients with headaches notice that getting their spines checked regularly seem to help them get fewer headaches… and less severe headaches if they do get them.


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