Headaches, like any pain in the body is a sign that something is not quite right. Your brain will create for you the sensation of pain if it thinks there is something wrong or if it thinks there is a potential problem.
The head is actually the most common site of pain in the body
Chiropractic Research Studies
A number of scientific research studies have shown chiropractic patients had fewer headaches that control groups and took less medication by the end of the follow up period. There appeared to be a small beneficial effect of being seen more often but the results of this study weren’t conclusive when it comes to frequency of care.
This means that for some people if their spines are not functioning well it can cause headaches or migraines. But for others who have spinal dysfunction – what chiropractors call subluxations – it may cause back pain or neck pain. A lot more research is still needed to be done in this area to figure this out.
Do you suffer from headaches, or do you know someone who does? If you do, know that you are not alone. The head is actually the most common site of pain in the body.1 Headaches can range from mild head ache, pain or tension that comes and goes through to constant intense throbbing pain so bad you have to crawl into bed with all the curtains pulled with a bucket by your side to throw up in.2
Some people find it difficult to describe their headache or head pain. However, others commonly describe their pain as throbbing, squeezing, constant, unrelenting or intermittent.2 The pain may be in one part of the face or skull, or it may be generalized involving the whole head. Headaches may arise seemingly ‘out of the blue’ or they may be associated with particular activities, such as computer use or during or after exercise2. A headache may start abruptly or may come on gradually over time. It may reoccur time and time again exactly the same, or it may get worse and worse each time you have one. A headache is often associated with nausea and vomiting.2 This is especially true with migraine headaches.
Headaches, like any pain in the body is a sign that something is not quite right.3 Your brain will create for you the sensation of pain if it thinks there is something wrong or if it thinks there is a potential problem.3 For example, your brain will give you a headache if you have taken too much medication – letting you know there is some chemical toxicity going on!1 And some headaches are a warning of life threatening illness.1 2 Such headaches are usually associated with fever, a stiff neck, muscle weakness or changes in sensation on one side of the body, a change in vision, vomiting or a change in behaviour 2 4. But for most people, headaches are not a sign of life threatening illness, and are more the consequence of lifestyle and daily behaviour.5
We know now from a lot of neuroscience research studies that when your spine is not moving properly this changes the way your brain perceives what is going on in and around your body, the way it integrates other sensory information, and the way it controls your body.6-8 1-3, 12 The movement of your spine is in other words very important for your brain to know where you are in space, and since you cannot see your spine with your eyes, the brain relies on the information it receives from the small muscles closest to your spine and skull.9-12
If the segments of your spine are not moving properly…what chiropractors call being subluxated 13… this may for some people manifest as headaches.14 15 Others may experience back pain. 16 Some babies may experience colic.17 And some kids may not be fully aware of their bladder at night and end up with bedwetting.18 19 I could go on and on and on.
Research has also shown that when a chiropractor then gently adjusts these subluxations…the spinal segments that are not moving properly… it helps the brain to more accurately ‘see’ what is going on in and around the body.12 This helps your brain to accurately ‘feel’ or ‘see’ what is really happening in your body so it can properly control and regulate what’s happening in your body.12 It doesn’t have to guess and make stuff up anymore about what movements you should be making, what your autonomic system should be doing, and what symptoms you should or shouldn’t be feeling.12 Remember pain is something your brain creates for you if your brain thinks there is a threat of tissue damage, or even just the potential for tissue damage.20-24
So when you get adjusted by your chiropractor, if your spinal dysfunction was manifesting as headaches these may improve.14 If your spinal dysfunction was manifesting as back pain then this may get better. 25 26 If it manifested as neck pain then these symptoms may improve.14 27 28 If it manifested as colic or bedwetting then these symptoms may improve, and so on and so on.
But lets take a look at what the research shows us about chiropractic care and headaches. Researchers have reviewed all of the randomised controlled trials that have looked at the effects of chiropractic care or spinal manipulative therapy on headaches.14 29 30 In these studies they have compared chiropractic care to sham care or other interventions. The results show that chiropractic care does help some people with headaches and migraines.31-33
In one study conducted in Australia and published in 200034 the researchers looked at 127 people suffering from migraines. The researchers looked at the effects of 2 months of chiropractic care compared to 2 months of no chiropractic care and recorded the participants migraine frequency, duration, disability, and medication use. After two months they found that the chiropractic group got better compared to the control group with all the migraine outcomes that they looked at. They actually found that for about 1 in 5 people their migraines almost went away completely after 2 months of chiropractic care! And for half of the study participants their migraine frequency significantly reduced.34
The results of this study suggest that a large number of migraine sufferers respond well to chiropractic care! We don’t know for sure who will respond well, and we don’t know how much of an influence the placebo effect has, but for some people when they get under chiropractic care their migraines may almost completely resolve within just a couple of months.34
Looking at another study15 published in 2010, 80 patients with chronic cervicogenic headaches received 8 weeks of chiropractic care. Another group of 80 patients with chronic cervicogenic headaches received 8 weeks of light massage. The researchers compared the patients pain scales relating to headaches and neck pain and also the frequency of headaches and their medication use. They also looked at whether it made a difference seeing the patients once or twice a week and they followed the patients over a 24 week period.
What they found was that the patients receiving chiropractic care improved significantly compared to the control group that received massage. Pretty much all of the pain and disability scores were better in the chiropractic group. And for some of these pain scores the improvement lasted out to at least 24 weeks. The chiropractic patients also had fewer headaches and took less medication by the end of the follow up period. There appeared to be a small beneficial effect of being seen more often but the results of this study weren’t conclusive when it comes to frequency of care. 15
The chiropractic patients in this study were over 3 times more likely to have a significant improvement in their headache symptoms compared to the patients receiving light massage. 15 35 So for people with cervicogenic headaches it’s well worth giving chiropractic care a go because it may really help them.
This means that for some people if their spines are not functioning well it can cause headaches or migraines.14 27 34. But for others who have spinal dysfunction – what chiropractors call subluxations – it may cause back pain or neck pain. And for others it may cause clumsiness, or reduced sports performance, or changes to your mood, or completely other symptoms such as colic in babies, or bedwetting in children or high blood pressure. The thing is we don’t yet know how exactly subluxations are going to affect you!12 We need to do a lot more research to figure this out. But in the meanwhile, why don’t you consider chiropractic care! Make sure your spine is functioning well so you can operate at your best!
- Stovner L, Hagen K, Jensen R, et al. The Global Burden of Headache: A Documentation of Headache Prevalence and Disability Worldwide. Cephalalgia 2007;27(3):193-210. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2982.2007.01288.x
- Lipton RB, Bigal ME, Steiner TJ, et al. Classification of primary headaches. Neurology 2004;63(3):427-35. doi: 10.1212/01.wnl.0000133301.66364.9b
- Seymour B. Pain: A Precision Signal for Reinforcement Learning and Control. Neuron 2019;101(6):1029-41. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2019.01.055 [published Online First: 2019/03/22]
- M S, Lamont AC, Alias NA, et al. Red flags in patients presenting with headache: clinical indications for neuroimaging. Br J Radiol 2003;76(908):532-35. doi: 10.1259/bjr/89012738
- Straube A, Heinen F, Ebinger F, et al. Headache in School Children. Deutsches Aerzteblatt Online 2013 doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2013.0811
- Uthaikhup S, Jull G, Sungkarat S, et al. The influence of neck pain on sensorimotor function in the elderly. Archives of gerontology and geriatrics 2012;55(3):667-72. doi: 10.1016/j.archger.2012.01.013 [published Online First: 2012/02/22]
- Haavik H, Murphy B. The role of spinal manipulation in addressing disordered sensorimotor integration and altered motor control. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 2012;22(5):768-76. doi: 10.1016/j.jelekin.2012.02.012 [published Online First: 2012/04/10]
- Treleaven J. Sensorimotor disturbances in neck disorders affecting postural stability, head and eye movement control. Man Ther 2008;13(1):2-11.
- Brumagne S, Cordo P, Lysens R, et al. The Role of Paraspinal Muscle Spindles in Lumbosacral Position Sense in Individuals With and Without Low Back Pain. 2000;25(8):989-94. doi: 10.1097/00007632-200004150-00015
- Michaelson P, Michaelson M, Jaric S, et al. VERTICAL POSTURE AND HEAD STABILITY IN PATIENTS WITH CHRONIC NECK PAIN. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine 2003;35(5):229-35. doi: 10.1080/16501970306093
- Pickar JG, Wheeler JD. Response of muscle proprioceptors to spinal manipulative-like loads in the anesthetized cat. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics 2001;24(1):2-11.
- Haavik H, Kumari N, Holt K, et al. The contemporary model of vertebral column joint dysfunction and impact of high-velocity, low-amplitude controlled vertebral thrusts on neuromuscular function. European Journal of Applied Physiology 2021:1-46.
- The Rubicon Group. Definition and Position Statement on the Chiropractic Subluxation. [Online] Available at: http://www.therubicongroup.org/#/policies/: The Rubicon Group, 2017:4.
- Bryans R, Descarreaux M, Duranleau M, et al. Evidence-based guidelines for the chiropractic treatment of adults with headache. J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2011;34(5):274-89. doi: 10.1016/j.jmpt.2011.04.008 [published Online First: 2011/06/07]
- Haas M, Spegman A, Peterson D, et al. Dose response and efficacy of spinal manipulation for chronic cervicogenic headache: a pilot randomized controlled trial. The spine journal : official journal of the North American Spine Society 2010;10(2):117-28. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2009.09.002 [published Online First: 2009/10/20]
- Sarker KK, Sethi J, Mohanty U. Effect of Spinal Manipulation on Pain Sensitivity, Postural Sway, and Health-related Quality of Life among Patients with Non-specific Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomised Control Trial. Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research 2019;13(2):1.
- Carnes D, Plunkett A, Ellwood J, et al. Manual therapy for unsettled, distressed and excessively crying infants: a systematic review and meta-analyses. BMJ open 2018;8(1):e019040.
- Huang T, Shu X, Huang YS, et al. Complementary and miscellaneous interventions for nocturnal enuresis in children. Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2011(12)
- Clar C, Tsertsvadze A, Hundt GL, et al. Clinical effectiveness of manual therapy for the management of musculoskeletal and non-musculoskeletal conditions: systematic review and update of UK evidence report. Chiropractic & manual therapies 2014;22(1):1-34.
- Koyama T, McHaffie JG, Laurienti PJ, et al. The subjective experience of pain: Where expectations become reality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2005;102(36):12950-55. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0408576102
- Ploghaus A. Dissociating Pain from Its Anticipation in the Human Brain. Science 1999;284(5422):1979-81. doi: 10.1126/science.284.5422.1979
- Apkarian AV, Bushnell MC, Treede R-D, et al. Human brain mechanisms of pain perception and regulation in health and disease. European journal of pain 2005;9(4):463-84.
- Hadjistavropoulos TD, S; Goubert, L.; Mogil J.S.; Sullivan, M.J.L.; Vervoort, T.; Craig K.D.; Cano, A.; Jackson, P.L.; Rainville, P.; Williams, A.C.; Fitzgerald, T.D. A Biopsychosocial formulation of pain communication. Psychological Bulletin 2011;137(6):910- 39. doi: 10.1037/a0023876
- Wager TD. Placebo-Induced Changes in fMRI in the Anticipation and Experience of Pain. Science 2004;303(5661):1162-67. doi: 10.1126/science.1093065
- Goertz CM, Pohlman KA, Vining RD, et al. Patient-centered outcomes of high-velocity, low-amplitude spinal manipulation for low back pain: a systematic review. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 2012;22(5):670-91. doi: 10.1016/j.jelekin.2012.03.006 [published Online First: 2012/04/27]
- Ruddock JK, Sallis H, Ness A, et al. Spinal Manipulation Vs Sham Manipulation for Nonspecific Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Chiropr Med 2016;15(3):165-83. doi: 10.1016/j.jcm.2016.04.014 [published Online First: 2016/09/24]
- Bryans R, Decina P, Descarreaux M, et al. Evidence-based guidelines for the chiropractic treatment of adults with neck pain. J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2014;37(1):42-63. doi: 10.1016/j.jmpt.2013.08.010 [published Online First: 2013/11/23]
- Gross A, Miller J, D’Sylva J, et al. Manipulation or mobilisation for neck pain: a Cochrane Review. Man Ther 2010;15(4):315-33. doi: 10.1016/j.math.2010.04.002 [published Online First: 2010/06/01]
- Bronfort G, Haas M, Evans R, et al. Effectiveness of manual therapies: the UK evidence report. Chiropr Osteopat 2010;18:3. doi: 10.1186/1746-1340-18-3 [published Online First: 2010/02/27]
- Millstine D, Chen CY, Bauer B. Complementary and integrative medicine in the management of headache. Bmj 2017;357
- Bryans R, Descarreaux M, Duranleau M, et al. Evidence-based guidelines for the chiropractic treatment of adults with headache. Journal of manipulative and physiological therapeutics 2011;34(5):274-89.
- Rist PM, Hernandez A, Bernstein C, et al. The impact of spinal manipulation on migraine pain and disability: a systematic review and meta‐analysis. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 2019;59(4):532-42.
- Fernandez M, Moore C, Tan J, et al. Spinal manipulation for the management of cervicogenic headache: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. European Journal of Pain 2020;24(9):1687-702.
- Tuchin PJ, Pollard H, Bonello R. A Randomized Controlled Trial of Chiropractic Spinal Manipulative Therapy for Migrane. J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2000;23(2):91-95.
- Haavik H, Murphy B. Subclinical neck pain and the effects of cervical manipulation on elbow joint position sense. J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2011;34(2):88-97. doi: 10.1016/j.jmpt.2010.12.009 [published Online First: 2011/02/22]