• William Farrell

Headaches can be a pain in the neck, or quite possibly, coming from it!


Our last post discussed how visual activities could influence neck muscles and cause neck pain. Similarly, neck muscles can affect the pains we feel in the head and face areas.


Just like patients having heart problems can feel pain in their left arm or jaw, our neck muscles can cause similar misleading feelings in our head and face. We call this phenomenon "referred pain." Referred pain results from when multiple body structures use shared neurological pathways to get information about different areas of the body to our brain. Once the information reaches the brain, sometimes the brain has difficulty figuring out where exactly where it came from. We may then view referred pain as our brain's "best guess." Unfortunately, this can leave health practitioners guessing how to treat it!


To illustrate the concept of referred pain, imagine a glass of water that, when it overflows, generates a headache. Now imagine we are pouring water into this glass from two different jugs at the same time. Which jug poured the drop that made it overflow? Our brain has to answer that question when information comes in from complex interconnected pathways. When multiple structures relay information to the brain simultaneously, this can trick our brain into feeling a problem in a location different from where the issue exists. Due to these complex shared pathways, our brain can be tricked into feeling pain, pressure, tingling, or tension sensations in areas of our head and face away from a primary source in the neck.




Identifying the appropriate area to treat is key to any successful patient outcome. Using our heart left arm pain example, we wouldn't want to be recommending this patient perform physiotherapy for left arm pain coming from a heart attack! As is easily understood, we want to get that patient to the emergency services pronto! Appropriate treatment follows an accurate diagnosis. When a diagnosis isn't accurate or complete, treatment recommendations rarely are either. To this point, identifying key neck muscular dysfunction and the patient's activities creating it can make a huge difference in managing chronic headache symptoms for a patient.



Fortunately, it's not all just a "best guess" game. Just like the heart and left arm have a characteristic referral pattern, irritated neck muscles present with reproducible patterns in the head and face. Experts like cardiologists intimately understand the common heart referral patterns; similarly, well-trained chiropractors and related professionals understand and consider such neck muscular referral patterns for headache patients.


Identifying a pain referring neck structure driving headache is only the first part of the process; we then need to examine a patient's lifestyle and day-to-day activities likely causing the neck muscular overactivity or weakness and contributing to these headaches. In this previous post, we discussed such day-to-day relationships related to desk work and progressive lenses. There are infinite considerations as we all live different lives making detailing them all here impossible but understanding the neck's functional role, as discussed in this previous post, is a good start to help guide the process. Better yet, we'd recommend sitting down and having your chronic headache condition reviewed by a professional well trained in this area.


If reading this left you feeling your headaches are possibly a pain in the neck, the Radix Pain & Rehabilitation chiropractors are available to help explore this possibility further. In Latin, "Radix" means root. We picked this name for our clinic because we aim to get to the root of the issue affecting your tissues. Book online anytime!