Headache and migraine

You’re only halfway through your workday, but your head is killing you. Looking at your computer screen makes it worse, and every noise is an agony. Worse, the ibuprofen you took isn’t helping. 

If this sounds like you, you aren’t alone. More than 90% of adults regularly suffer from headaches. Just because headache and migraine affect many people doesn’t mean they aren’t painful or serious or need treatment.

But what is a headache, and what can you do about it?

Generally speaking, a headache is any pain experienced in the face, head, and neck. There are hundreds of kinds of headaches, each characterised by the type of pain it causes.

A migraine is a headache of fluctuating intensity, often accompanied by queasiness and sensitivity to light and noise.

Headache remedies include over-the-counter pain killers for mild headaches, but more severe pain might require an appointment with a general practitioner. Prescription medications are one solution, but some headaches may respond better to more than one treatment option. For those situations, a chiropractor can help with headaches and migraines.

young woman suffering from a headache

What is a headache?

In general, a headache is exactly what it sounds like: pain in the head. There are a lot of ways that pain can show up. Harvard Medical School identified over 300 types of headache based on the kind of pain, who gets it, and how long it lasts.

So why do you have a headache? The exact cause of most headaches is a mystery. You feel the pain in your head, but it doesn’t necessarily start there.

There aren’t any nerves in the skull or brain tissue capable of registering pain. Headache pain comes from the other tissues in the head area, including sinuses, the neck muscles, the scalp, the teeth and jaw, and nearby nerves.

Headaches can be a symptom of another medical issue, and they can also be a problem independently. They cause different types of pain in different areas, and some can be severe enough to interfere with work or other activities.

There are many different causes for headache pain, and therefore many ways to treat it. The type of treatment you should seek depends on the kind of pain you’re feeling, and what is causing it.

What can cause a headache?​

A wide variety of things can cause or trigger headaches. Some of the more common triggers for primary headaches are:

  • fatigue
  • stress
  • cold and flu
  • bad posture
  • dehydration
  • consuming certain foods or drinks
  • taking new medication
  • taking too many painkillers

Secondary headaches, on the other hand, are a symptom of a disease that can activate the pain-sensitive nerves of the head. A vast number of conditions, ranging considerably in severity, may cause secondary headaches.

Headaches can be tricky. Different triggers can cause the same types of headaches in different people. Too much caffeine might give you a headache, whereas not enough could cause the same problem for your spouse.

Some types of headaches are genetic, and specific situations cause others. If you don’t know what triggered your headache, it can be hard to know what to do to avoid getting another. There are strategies to overcome this problem, such as keeping a headache diary.

Types of headaches

Headaches are divided into two main categories: primary and secondary. Secondary headaches are a symptom of a different medical problem, while primary headaches are the problem.

Both of these categories are divided into more specific kinds of headaches. There are chronic, long-term headaches, and occasional or situational headaches.

The type of headache you have determines the type of treatment you should get to alleviate your pain. You can treat mild, occasional headaches at home, but more serious ones need attention from a professional.

Primary headaches

Primary headaches refer to headache pain that is the primary problem. An injury or disease doesn’t cause these headaches. The more common types of primary headaches include:
  • cluster headache
  • migraine with and without aura
  • tension headache
  • trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia
This group includes the most common and well-known kinds of headache. Unfortunately, the underlying causes of this group of headaches are unknown. Luckily, there are treatments for their symptoms.


Migraines are severe headaches that last for at least four hours. Common symptoms include nausea and vomiting, auras, extreme thirst, and light sensitivity.

It’s believed migraine pain comes from inflammation in the blood vessels around your brain. Signals from the nervous system trigger the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters in your brain. These chemicals cause painful blood vessel swelling.

There isn’t a cure for migraines because doctors don’t know the cause, but there are many treatment options for the symptoms. Medications called triptans can balance the chemicals in your brain responsible for the pain.

Tension headaches

Another common primary headache is a tension headache. Unlike migraines, they don’t cause nausea or light sensitivity. Like migraines, they can last longer than a day, though they are often shorter.

Tension headaches have several causes. The most common is tension in the neck joints and muscles, usually brought on by stress. They can be episodic (occasional), or chronic.

Tension headaches are often described as causing dull pain, tightness, or pressure around your forehead or the back of your head and neck

The triggers for tension headaches and migraine headaches are very similar, but not all the same. Poor posture can trigger tension headaches, but not migraines.

Chiropractic treatment can help tension headaches because the pain is linked to the muscles and bones near the spine.

Secondary headaches

A small percentage of headaches have clear underlying causes. These types are rare, but they are usually more severe than common types of headaches.

Secondary headaches are a symptom of another problem, such as an illness or injury. Tumours, spine injuries, and brain injuries can trigger secondary headaches.

As you can imagine there are dozens of sources and causes of secondary headaches.

Treatments for secondary headaches are more specific. A medical practitioner knows the underlying cause, so they can treat the cause as well as the symptoms.

One type of secondary headache often examined by chiropractors is cervicogenic headaches. 

Cervicogenic headaches

Cervicogenic headaches are a type of secondary headache caused by a variety of problems. They are often the result of a traumatic injury like whiplash, or fractures and dislocations along the neck and spine.

Cervicogenic headaches from injuries are treated alongside the injury. Chiropractic care and spinal alignment are often part of the rehabilitation and healing for the injured neck.

Diseases like arthritis and cancer, or infections in the cervical spine, can also lead to cervicogenic headaches. The cervical spine is the first seven vertebrae, starting at the base of the skull.

In this case, knowing the underlying cause doesn’t necessarily help with treatment. Cancer and arthritis have treatments, but not cures. Treatment for cervicogenic headache pain has to be incorporated into treatment for the other symptoms.

Do chiropractors treat headaches?

Chiropractors are usually thought of as spine specialists. So what does that have to do with headaches? Can a chiropractor help with headaches?

One way to prevent and treat headaches is to take good care of your spinal health. Relieving tension and pressure on the spine can eliminate a lot of headache symptoms.

The nervous system is responsible for regulating and controlling all the other systems in the body. It’s the way the body communicates. Having a healthy nervous system is key to keeping the whole body healthy.

The spine protects the nervous system, so you need a healthy spine to have a healthy nervous system. Chiropractic care helps keep your spine and nervous system in the best shape possible.

Headache treatment

There a number of treatments available for relief from headaches and migraines. The type of treatment largely depends on the type of headache you may be suffering from.

Things to help most occasional tension-type headaches  occasional include over-the-counter medications such as:

  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen
  • Acetaminophen

For severe headaches that do not respond to over-the-counter medication or if medication is required several times a week, a healthcare professional should be consulted. Your general practitioner may prescribe other medications to treat more severe headaches.

Strategies and treatments to help relieve more frequent tension-type and stress-related headaches include:

  • Chiropractic treatment
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Aromatherapy
  • Meditation
  • Yoga

One of the best things for headache and migraine relief is to talk to more than one healthcare professional with the aim of employing a holistic approach, such as a chiropractor and your general practitioner.

They will work with you to create a care plan individualised to your symptoms and pattern of headache or migraine episodes.

Chiropractic treatments for headaches and migraine

Recent studies show that people are turning to chiropractic care to help manage their headache pain. Spinal adjustment helps alleviate headache pain from tension in the spine and surrounding muscles.

Most headaches can be traced back to problems in the spine, joints, muscles, and nervous system. Since chiropractic treats these issues, it’s the perfect treatment for headaches.

Cervicogenic, migraine, and tension headaches in particular may benefit from chiropractic care. Holding tension in the neck, back of the head and shoulders may pull the spine out of alignment. Spinal adjustments and other chiropractic treatments may help.

Chiropractic may also help you find ways to prevent headaches and migraines in future. Exercises, stretches, relaxation techniques, and dietary adjustments are all tools a chiropractor can use to help patients find relief.

Headaches of all kinds get in the way of the important parts of your life. Whether you experience headaches or migraines every day or just every once in a while, seeing a chiropractor may help.