Can Chiropractic Help Cluster and Tension Headache?

By Dr. Brent Wells, DC

There are many different types of headaches. They range from mild to excruciating, and the frequency of occurrence has a similarly wide range. There’s no cure-all for any kind of headache, but chiropractic care has been effective in treating many different headaches. Read on to find out how.

Chiropractic care is very effective for headaches, including migraines and those caused by tension. While it may not work for everyone, many people have seen excellent results from chiropractic, and medical studies verify this information. Anyone looking for relief from headaches should consider visiting a doctor of chiropractic.

Headache Types

There are three main types of headaches and numerous causes for each. Some of these causes, also called triggers, aren’t well understood, while others have a lot of science and studies as supporting evidence. Generally what this means is that what causes a headache for one person may have absolutely no negative effect on another. This is why it’s important to seek different forms of treatment until you find something that works for you.

Three Types of Headaches

Headaches are generally classified into three types: Primary, secondary, and nerve pain or other headaches.

  • Primary Headaches
      • Examples of primary headaches include tension, cluster, and migraine. They aren’t a byproduct of an injury, illness, or allergy that the body is fighting to overcome. Instead, they are the illness, so to speak.
  • Secondary Headaches
      • Examples of secondary headaches include those brought on by allergies, sinus problems, medication use, alcohol consumption, dehydration, and many others, including concussion or trauma-induced headaches. Secondary headaches are a symptom of something the body is dealing with or an injury.
  • Nerve Pain Headaches
    • These are also called cranial neuralgia headaches. The term is used to describe the inflammation of one of the cranial nerves that run down the neck from the brain.

Headache Symptoms

There are many potential causes of headaches. Each person is different, experiencing unique triggers that may be hard to pin down at first. But, there are some common triggers that many people experience.

  • Migraine
    • Migraine headaches usually cause severe, pulsing pain on one side of the head, accompanied by sensitivities to light and sound.
  • Tension
    • Tension headaches are characterized by a dull, constant pain all around the head.
  • Cluster
    • Cluster headaches are characterized by sharp pain, usually behind one eye, several times a day.

When to Seek Help For Headaches

Most headaches are transient and random. They come, make us miserable for a little while, and then leave again. Often an over-the-counter pain reliever can help dull the pain while we wait for it to leave. These types of headaches are called “episodic” because they only happen seldom and aren’t usually severe enough to seek medical treatments.

Seeking help becomes essential when experiencing “chronic” headaches, meaning they happen regularly— often several times a month— and interfere with life in general. If you are experiencing chronic headaches, chiropractic care can help.

But it’s really up to you when you seek care for your headaches. Many people experience excruciating headaches once or twice a month. That’s not enough to be considered “chronic” but it’s definitely enough to get in the way. Seeking care for any type of headache comes down to your own judgement.

A good way to get a head start on recovery and treatment is to determine whether your headaches are primary or secondary.

Primary or Secondary?

Since secondary headaches are usually short-lived and the result of something controllable by the individual, it’s a good idea to try and rule out the root cause before seeking help. This includes noting any medications you’re taking, foods that may trigger the headaches, how much water you drink, and other environmental and health factors. If you’re unsure whether your  headaches are primary or secondary, a chiropractor can help.

If you continue to have headaches even after changing what you think is causing a secondary headache, you may actually be experiencing a primary or nerve pain headache. If so, it’s best to see a physician or a doctor of chiropractic to determine the best course of treatment.

However, if you are experiencing a headache accompanied by any of the following symptoms, you should seek emergency care immediately.

  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • High fever
  • Numbness or loss of limb function
  • Stiff neck
  • Loss of vision
  • Sudden and severe head pain or trauma

It’s always best to rule out life-threatening or serious causes. Once you’ve determined that your life is not in danger, then you can seek help in the form of chiropractic care.

Chiropractic Treatment for Headaches

The exact treatment you receive from a chiropractor for headaches will depend on several factors, including your medical history, overall health, activity level, severity and frequency of the headaches, and lifestyle. Once the doctor of chiropractic has all of this information, he or she will conduct a physical exam to get a feel for the body as a whole.

Since many headaches stem from the shoulders and neck, your chiropractor will probably focus on that area. However, chiropractic care is based on the fact that issues in one part of the body can affect changes in another part. As a result, most chiropractors take a full-body approach to treatment. A few of the most common and effective chiropractic treatment options for headaches are as follows.

  • Spinal Manipulation
      • Often called spinal alignment, this treatment can help relieve stress and tension, increase blood flow, correct misalignments, improve sleep, and improve posture. Spinal manipulation has been shown to help relieve both tension and migraine headaches.
  • Manual Therapy
      • Manual therapy is a hands-on modality that focuses on improving soft-tissue functions like that of the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints. Different forms of manual therapy have been shown to help headaches.
  • Electronic Stimulation
      • Usually used in conjunction with other therapies as a way to relieve pain and tension in muscles.
  • Lifestyle and Dietary Changes
    • Determining triggers and eliminating them has proven very effective for many headache sufferers. A chiropractor can help you do this in addition to other therapies.

The Safety of Chiropractic for Headaches

Safety is always a concern for both patients and chiropractors when performing any sort of treatment. However, when looking at the studies available, it’s clear that chiropractic care for headaches is very safe. One study reported only mild and transient adverse effects (soreness and tiredness) out of 703 sessions. The study found no severe adverse effects.

Another study looked at the instances of severe adverse effects suffered by those who sought chiropractic treatment for migraine headaches. The study found the instances to be “low to very low.”

So, although chiropractic care may not be the best or only course of treatment for everyone suffering chronic headaches, it has been proven safe and effective for many. It seems that many people avoid chiropractic care for headaches due to misconceptions about the treatment options. In reality, it is one of the best drug-free and non-invasive ways to treat different types of recurring headaches.


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About the Author

Dr. Brent Wells, D.C.

Dr. Brent Wells has been a trusted chiropractor since moving his family from Oregon to Alaska back in 1998 and founded Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab – B.S. from Univ. of Nevada, Doctorate from Western States Chiropractic College, volunteer for Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Foundation, and member of the American Chiropractic Association. As a chiropractor his focus is on family, including his 3 children and wife of 20+ years, his clinics, and ongoing education.

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