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Headaches are one of the most common pain conditions, affecting around 80% of the population [1] at some point in their lives. In fact, it’s rare to find someone who has never experienced a headache. Each year, 50% of the world’s population suffers from this discomfort. Today, we’ll delve into how osteopathy can effectively treat various types of headaches and what to expect during an osteopathic assessment.

Understanding Headaches and Their Triggers
The International Headache Society classifies headaches into three major categories:

  1. Primary Headaches: These occur without an identifiable cause and are the main problem themselves. The two primary headaches that osteopaths commonly address are tension-type headaches and migraines.
  2. Secondary Headaches: These are due to underlying medical conditions or musculoskeletal disorders, such as cervicogenic headaches, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) related headaches, infections, or brain tumors. Osteopathy is particularly effective for cervicogenic and TMJ-related headaches.
  3. Cranial Neuropathies: These are less common and won’t be covered in this discussion.

Before exploring how osteopathy can reduce headaches, it’s important to understand the common triggers. As shown in the graph below [2], neck pain is the top trigger for headaches, noticed by 43% of patients, followed by fatigue at 33%. Osteopaths are experts in assessing and treating neck pain, which is the second most common reason for consultation.

Even if neck pain wasn’t present before the headache, these symptoms often coexist. Here are some statistics that highlight this relationship:

  • 77% of migraine sufferers experience neck pain, including during the premonitory period (days or hours before the headache).
  • Neck pain is 12 times more prevalent in people with migraines than in healthy individuals.

Osteopathic Assessment for Headaches

During the initial consultation, an osteopath will first exclude any severe causes of headaches, known as red flags. For example, headaches aggravated by positional changes or those that begin after a trauma are outside the osteopath’s scope and require a referral to a specialist.

To make an accurate diagnosis, your osteopath will ask about five essential headache characteristics:

  • Location: Where do you feel the headache? Is it behind the ears, at the back of your skull, or the entire head?
  • Sensation Type: Is it a constricting or pulsating feeling? Is it constant or intermittent?
  • Duration: How long does it last? Minutes, hours, or days?
  • Aggravating/Easing Factors: What triggers or relieves it? Stress, sports, neck movements, fatigue?
  • Associated Symptoms: Do you experience nausea, vomiting, neck pain, or tingling in the head or fingers?

Once the osteopath gathers this information, a physical assessment, particularly of the neck, will help confirm the suspected diagnosis.

Osteopathic Treatment for Headaches

Let’s compare two common types of headaches and how osteopathic treatment varies for each:

Tension-Type Headaches: These headaches are usually bilateral and occur at the back of the skull. They respond well to:

  • Dry Needling: Targeting specific neck muscles with low pain pressure thresholds to alleviate tightness.
  • Neck Motor Control Exercises: Reconditioning the small, deep neck muscles that attach the skull to the first two vertebrae.
  • Neck Manipulations: Providing a modulating effect on headache pain.

Cervicogenic Headaches: These are caused by irritability in the upper neck joints. Treatment includes:

  • Specific Neck Joint Mobilizations: To reduce joint stiffness and improve range of motion.
  • Upper Neck Manipulations: For quick, short-term relief.
  • Self-Mobilization Education: Teaching patients exercises they can perform at home to manage symptoms and regain control.

Osteopathy offers a non-invasive treatment option for persistent or recurrent headaches. It’s a valuable alternative to medication, particularly as medication overuse can lead to secondary headaches.

Why Choose Osteopathy for Headaches?

Osteopathy focuses on treating the root cause of headaches rather than just alleviating symptoms. By addressing underlying issues such as neck pain and musculoskeletal imbalances, osteopaths can provide long-lasting relief and improve overall well-being. Here’s why osteopathy might be the right choice for you:

  1. Personalized Care: Osteopaths tailor their treatments to each individual, considering your specific symptoms and health history.
  2. Holistic Approach: Osteopathy treats the whole body, not just the headache. This holistic approach can lead to better overall health outcomes.
  3. Non-Invasive: Osteopathic treatments are gentle and non-invasive, making them suitable for individuals seeking alternatives to medication.
  4. Preventive Care: Osteopaths provide education and exercises to help prevent future headaches, empowering you to take control of your health.

Take the First Step Towards Headache Relief

If you’re struggling with persistent or recurrent headaches, don’t wait to seek help. Osteopathy offers a comprehensive and effective approach to managing and reducing headaches. By addressing the root causes and providing personalized treatments, osteopaths can help you achieve long-term relief and improve your quality of life.
Book an appointment with an osteopath today and take the first step towards a headache-free life. Remember, you don’t have to live with pain—there are solutions available to help you feel better and enjoy life to the fullest.

[1] The impact of headaches in Europe: principal results of the Eurolight project – Steiner & al. 2014 (J Headache pain)
[2] Towards improved migraine management: Determining potential trigger factors in individual patients – Peris & al. 2016 (Cephalalgia)

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