Physiology of Headaches by Dr. Beachy

The Anatomy and Physiology of Headaches

Headaches are one of the most common ailments that plagues people of all ages. Researchers estimate that 9 out of 10 Americans experience headaches at some point. Furthermore, in the last 12 months 95% of women and 90% of men have had at least one headache. For about 45 million of us Americans, those headaches are considered chronic.


How one experiences the frequency, severity, and duration of headache symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. They range from being intermittent or occasional to near constant and from dull and mild to throbbing and sharp. Some even get so severe they cause nausea and become truly debilitating, preventing the sufferer from working and even enjoying simple day-to-day activities many of us take for granted.

Headaches can occur for different reasons. They are divided into two different categories, depending on their cause. Primary headaches (the most common) are headaches that arise on their own and not caused by some external factor or condition. Secondary headaches occur as a result of some other health condition. As chiropractors, we most commonly deal with three different types of headaches in our patients:

  • Tension headaches are primary headaches that are triggered by muscles pulling in the head, neck and shoulder and/or a misalignment of one of the bones in the neck. They are often triggered by stress. Misaligned bones in the neck in conjunction with muscular contractions can themselves become the source of tension and stress throughout the body that eventually causes a headache. In today’s society, many people engage in more sedentary lifestyles than they used to, and more and more hours are spent in one fixed position or posture (sound familiar?). This can increase joint irritation and muscle tension in the neck, upper back and scalp, ultimately causing your head to ache. 
  • Migraine headaches are also in the primary headache category. They are often referred to as vascular headaches, due to the fact they occur when blood vessels in the head suddenly dilate or expand. Research into the cause of migraines is ongoing, but we know that the nervous system and genetic factors are also leading contributors. People who experience migraines report wide array of triggers and associated symptoms.  
  • Cervicogenic headaches are in the secondary headache category, because they are produced when pain begins in the neck or back of the head and is referred to the forehead or the area behind, in and around the eyes. Some common triggers of secondary headache are trauma, chronic tension and disease. Trigger points in the neck, shoulder blade and spine are also sources of cervicogenic headaches, though they can be more difficult to identify. 

Over the years, many over the counter and prescription medications have been developed to relieve the symptoms of headaches and migraines. However, they typically do very little to address the underlying cause of the problem. Furthermore, many of these medications have unwanted side effects, especially is they’re used often and/or over a prolonged period of time or in combination with other medications. Because of this, many people are beginning to seek out “alternative” approaches to managing headaches, rather than reaching for that bottle of pills in the medicine cabinet. 


Chiropractic has been shown to be effective in preventing or reducing the frequency and severity of both primary and secondary headaches in a large and growing body of medical research. One study performed by the New Zealand government showed that the majority of people suffering from recurring headaches from spinal misalignment found that their headaches were relieved by chiropractic adjustments, and many were found to still be without pain in the two-year follow up. Another study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics found that spinal adjustments are more effective and longer-lasting for treating tension headaches than the use of commonly prescribed pain meds. 

At Hurley Chiropractic, our doctors perform a thorough examination to identify the cause of your headache pain. Depending on your health history and specific circumstances, we may recommend chiropractic adjustments to improve function in the spine, relieve muscle tension, reduce nerve irritation and improve vascular flow. We may also recommend other therapies, like massage or therapeutic stretches and exercises, as a part of our treatment plan to give you the best results in reducing symptoms and achieving your goals. Other recommendations we make might include lifestyle advice on posture, diet, exercise, sleep and stress management techniques (see our last blog post!).


If you or someone you care about suffers from recurring migraines or headaches, we encourage you to make an appointment with us ASAP so we can start getting to the root of the problem and help you live headache free!


Relaxation tips by Dr. Beachy

In the current state of the world, many people are experiencing higher than usual levels of stress and anxiety. Many people develop this increased stress and anxiety due to an imbalance between the sympathetic (stress mode) and parasympathetic (repair mode) divisions of the nervous system. Learning how to restore balance between the two by increasing the parasympathetic side and decreasing the sympathetic side in a natural holistic way can help many that complain of stress and anxiety.  


There are many different tools and techniques that can be used to help balance the nervous system –the following are a few that I highly recommend.


Box Breathing
Box breathing is a breathing technique that involves a series of breaths in and out, with periods of holding your breath in between each inhale and exhale. For example, box breathing with four second intervals would start with a 4 second inhale, followed by holding the inhale for 4 seconds, then exhaling for 4 seconds, finishing with a 4 second hold after the exhale. This process is repeated for a number of cycles. I usually recommend people begin with 10 cycles, then stop and see how you feel. 

Mediation may seem daunting to many because their minds are so worked up that they can’t seem to sit still and slow their brain down. Meditation can look different for different people, though. Some prefer guided meditations in which you sit and listen to someone else guide you through an audible meditation, whereas others may prefer to sit and listen to the ocean, the rain fall, or a calm stream flow through a forest as they turn their attention and mind inward. There are also many smartphone apps now to help guide you through the process. Some of my favorites are Headspace or Inscape.

Herbs & Supplements
There are many herbs and supplements out there that promise to help reduce stress and anxiety. Some of my favorites are Lavender, Valerian Root, Passionflower, Chamomile, Ashwagandha, L-Theanine, Kava and CBD. Without getting into too much details behind each one, just know they all help the body deal with stress and promote relaxation! It is important to remember though, that supplements are not regulated by the FDA. Because of this, you typically get what you pay for. I recommend using a supplement company that utilizes non-biased, third party testing to ensure quality and purity of the products they advertise. (We use Designs for Health and highly recommend them!)

Massage is helpful for relieving physical stress, as well as mental/emotional, that is held in the muscles of our body. Having the healing touch of a massage therapist not only relaxes the muscles, but relaxes the mind as well. 

Chiropractic is one of the most powerful tools we have to reduce stress, as it helps the body deal with the physical, mental and emotional stress our body’s store. Furthermore, though, it helps our nervous systems ADAPT to future stresses as well. This happens because the spine and nervous system are so closely related to one another. When we have an issue in the spine, whether we feel it or not, we have an issue with the nervous system. Chiropractic adjustments have been shown to decrease the sympathetic nervous system activity, while also increasing the parasympathetic nervous system, thus creating more balance, resilience and adaptability within the nervous system.