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The following article is an excerpt from "Trigger Point Therapy for Headaches and Migraines" by Valerie Delaune, LAc, reprinted with permission by New Harbinger Publications.
Trigger Points, Headaches, and Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction
If you’re suffering from headaches, all too often you may be diagnosed with general terms such as tension headache, migraine, or TMJ pain without the true cause being identified. Often the cause is trigger points in one or more muscles, but the diagnosing practitioner is unfamiliar with trigger points. Trigger points can play a very large role in most types of chronic and acute headaches, as well as temporomandibular joint problems, which means you may be able to get a great deal of relief, or even complete relief, by working on trigger points and eliminating perpetuating factors.
Your headache, migraine, and TMJ pain is likely treatable.
The sooner you start doing the self-help techniques [Chapters 10-18*] and possibly receiving treatment from a practitioner, the sooner you will get relief. This is important, since untreated pain can create an escalating cycle that makes the pain more chronic and more resistant to treatment.
Most people have had some headaches.
Some people may have them frequently enough to be annoying, but their headaches are more of an inconvenience. For others, headaches can be mildly to severely debilitating. If this book is in your hands, chances are you are in the latter category. In the United States alone, more than forty-five million people have chronic headaches, or one in six people (Cleveland Clinic 2007). The rate of incidence varies from country to country.
Symptoms and Causes of Headaches
A headache is defined as aching or pain in one or more areas of the head or neck. Both the frequency and pain level can vary greatly. About 90 percent of all headaches fall into three categories: tension headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches. The remaining 10 percent fall into the category of secondary headaches (Healthcommunities.com 2002).
Tension headaches are by far the most common type of chronic headache. People who experience migraines typically also have tension headaches in between their migraines.
Symptoms of Tension Headaches
Tension headaches usually affect both sides of the head and last from thirty minutes to several days or more. They’re usually characterized by a mild to moderate level of “pressing” pain or a dull, steady ache, though the intensity may also be severe. They may affect your ability to sleep soundly. They are not accompanied by the additional symptoms listed below that distinguish migraine headaches. Women are more likely than men to have tension headaches.
Causes of Tension Headaches
The most common causes of tension headaches are muscular problems and associated postural problems. Tension headaches are often aggravated by stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, noise, and glare, but they can also be associated with arthritis, disk problems, or degenerative bone disease in the neck or spine.
Temporomandibular disorder (TMD)
can also cause tension headaches. The temporomandibular joint, located just in front of your ear, is the hinge joint that allows your jaw to open. A 1983 study found that people with TMD are twice as likely to get headaches compared to non-TMD control subjects (Kemper and Okeson 1983). Of the subjects in both groups who had headaches, the frequency and severity of headaches was higher in those with TMD. In fact, headaches are the most common symptom in people with TMJ problems. Usually this will be a tension-type headache, but sometimes it will be a combination of migraines and tension headaches.
A 1996 study reported that when subjects were asked to clench their teeth for a prolonged period, it induced a headache in 68 percent of the subjects who had chronic tension headaches, whereas a headache was triggered in only 16 percent of the non-headache control group (Jensen and Olesen 1996). When chewing muscles are treated for trigger points, headache symptoms usually lessen.
TMJ problems are addressed in greater detail in Chapter 4.
Trigger Points and Central Sensitization in Tension Headaches
A study by Dr. Lars Bendtsen (2000) confirmed the role of central sensitization in chronic tension headaches. In a group of subjects who all suffered from chronic tension headaches, they asked each person to report pain levels as muscles in the neck and on the head were pressed. Certain muscles were tender even when the subject was not experiencing a headache at the time.
Bendtsen theorized that long-term inputs from trigger points eventually lead to central sensitization in specific areas of the spinal cord and brainstem, which in turn causes additional changes in the affected muscles, a self-perpetuating cycle that converts periodic headaches into chronic tension headaches. Because of this, even if the original initiating factor causing episodic headaches is eliminated, the trigger point-central sensitization cycle can continue and worsen on its own. Bendtsen also reported on another study, which indicated that subjects with chronic tension headaches feel pain in the body sooner than healthy control subjects and have a lower threshold for pain tolerance (Bendtsen 2000). This means that whatever causes the lower pain threshold in some people may also cause them to have chronic headaches.
Migraines usually first begin between the ages of ten and thirty-five and decrease after age fifty. Frequency varies greatly, from infrequent to several times per month. Approximately one in ten people get migraines, and about 75 percent are women (American Medical Association 1989). Some women experience symptoms just before or during their period (menses), indicating a hormonal role.
Symptoms of Migraine Headaches
A migraine headache is characterized by throbbing, pounding, or pulsating pain that lasts from hours to several days. Intensity of pain alone is not a symptom of a migraine, since tension headaches can be as painful or even more painful than migraines, and some migraines may not even have headache pain as a symptom. In some people, the pain may not be pulsating or it may vary in quality. Migraine pain is often only on one side, but it may occur on both sides or move from side to side. Pain can be intensified by movement, coughing, straining, or lowering your head.
Migraines are usually accompanied by one of more of the following symptoms: nausea, vomiting, depression, disturbed sleep, tenderness in the neck and scalp, cold and sweaty hands and feet, and/or sensitivity to light, sound, and smells. A migraine is sometimes accompanied by diarrhea, urinary frequency, fever, chills, facial swelling, irritability, and fatigue.
Migraines may be accompanied by an aura, but more commonly this is not the case. A migraine without an aura (common migraine) may be preceded by mental fuzziness, mood changes, fatigue, and an unusual retention of fluids. When present, auras are usually visual and precede the migraine by ten to thirty minutes. People often liken it to looking through a kaleidoscope, with zigzag lines, bright shimmering lights, wavy images, or hallucinations. They may experience blurred vision, eye pain, or temporary vision loss or blind spots. Auras may also be nonvisual, consisting of dizziness, vertigo, speech or language abnormalities, weakness of movement, or tingling or numbness of the face, tongue, or extremities. An aura may occur only on one side even when headache pain is located on both sides, or it may be on the opposite side of a one-sided migraine.
Symptoms of migraines are usually incapacitating, and people often feel weak, tired, and sometimes nauseated after the migraine has subsided. People with frequent migraines are more likely to have tension headaches between migraine attacks than those with infrequent migraines.
Causes of Migraine Headaches
Though there are theories about the causes of migraines, the mechanism is still unknown. Most studies have attempted to explain migraines in terms of one particular causative factor and have failed to provide an explanation for the complexity of the symptoms and clinical observations. It’s likely that a combination of factors provide input in varying proportional degrees and result in a particular set of symptoms for any type of headache. These input factors are trigger points in muscles, emotional stimuli triggering the limbic system (part of the brain) to increase muscle contractions, and substances (including biochemicals such as serotonin and other neurotransmitters) that affect the blood vessels and other tissues in the brain (vascular system input), causing them to become inflamed and swollen, and result in a headache.
It is theorized that the sum of the vascular system input plus the input from trigger points and emotional stimuli determines whether or not pain is a symptom, and if so, how intense the pain is. This could explain how some people can have trigger points or experience emotional duress without having headaches or migraines, while others get severe headaches. People who tend to have migraines and tension headaches that occur at the same time are likely to have a very strong input from emotional factors, or possibly abuse drugs (Olesen 1991).
Triggers of Migraine Headaches
Known triggers of migraines include alcohol, smoking or exposure to smoke, weather changes, allergies, altitude changes, jet lag, hormonal changes, stress, sun glare, flashing lights, constipation, some medications, birth control pills, hormone replacement drugs, strong smells such as petroleum fumes and perfumes or colognes, and foods that contain caffeine, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and nitrates (processed meats, bacon, and hot dogs). Insufficient food, water, sleep, or exercise can also cause migraines.
Trigger Points and Migraine Headaches
One study demonstrated that trigger points may play a far greater role in the perpetuation of migraines than previously thought (Calandre et al. 2006). The study compared patients at a headache clinic who suffered from frequent migraines with both nonclinic subjects with fewer migraine attacks and healthy control subjects who, at most, had infrequent tension headaches. The researchers examined specific muscles for trigger points and found that 93.9 percent of the migraine subjects had trigger points with referred pain patterns that reproduced the their migraine pain and other symptoms. By comparison, only 29 percent of the healthy subjects had pain referred to the same areas, and the pain was not migraine-like in quality. Pressing the trigger points of migraine subjects could reproduce the location of pain, the throbbing quality, light and sound sensitivity, and other symptoms that were common for that person. In 30.6 percent of migraine subjects, pressing muscles with trigger points actually caused a full-blown migraine that required immediate treatment.
The researchers discovered that the longer the history of migraines and the more frequent the attacks, the greater the number of trigger points the person had in their muscles. About 74 percent of the trigger points were found in the temporalis and suboccipital muscles. Other trigger points were usually only found in additional muscles when the subject had more than four trigger points and the condition had been going on for some time. This means that the longer migraines and trigger points are left untreated, the greater number of trigger points will form and the more migraines you will getâ€”a self-perpetuating cycle. (Note: For some reason this study didn’t include checking the sternocleidomastoid muscle for trigger points, which would have revealed an even higher rate of correlation between trigger points and migraines and headaches. Also, the sternocleidomastoid would likely have been one of the muscles in which trigger points were more frequently found.)
The researchers theorized that the trigger points themselves could be responsible for the changes in the nerves and blood vessels in the brain, rather than the vascular system necessarily being a separate and distinct input system on its own. It is well-known that trigger points can cause symptoms other than referred pain, such as dizziness, vertigo, diarrhea, painful periods, colic, heart palpitations, and other conditions that wouldn’t normally be thought of as caused by trigger points in muscles. Their theory makes sense, given that palpation of trigger points can reproduce nonpain migraine symptoms and even evoke a migraine, that treating trigger points can prevent or stop a migraine if treatment is done early enough, and that a greater number of trigger points correlates to greater frequency of migraines and length of the condition.
So which came first? Did the trigger points in certain muscles lead to the development of migraines and then a self-perpetuating cycle began, or did the migraines come first and lead to development of an increasing number of trigger points? In any case, this discovery is very heartening, as it means treating trigger points can have a significant impact on reducing or eliminating migraines.
Other Types of Migraines
There are a few types of migraines that won’t likely be helped by trigger point self-help techniques, but even in these cases it would still be wise to read through the section on perpetuating factors and eliminate any factors that might apply. A headache-free migraine has an aura but no pain. An ophthalmoplegic migraine begins in the eye and is accompanied by vomiting, drooping eyelids, and paralysis of the nerves responsible for eye movement. Basilar artery migraine, which affects mostly young people, is characterized by a severe headache, vertigo, double vision, slurred speech, and lack of muscle coordination. Carotidynia, more common in older people, produces a deep, dull, aching and/or piercing pain in the jaw or neck, and usually tenderness and swelling over the carotid artery in the neck. A status migraine is a rare type characterized by intense pain that lasts more than seventy-two hours and may lead to hospitalization.
Cluster headaches primarily affect men between twenty and forty years old. They come on suddenly and are severe, and occur for a series of days, weeks, or months and then disappear. They may recur seasonally or randomly.
Symptoms of Cluster Headaches
Onset occurs most frequently within two to three hours of falling asleep, during a REM phase of sleep, when dreaming occurs. The pain is typically steady and feels like a sharp, burning, or boring pain on one side of the head or in and around one eye, but it can involve a whole side of the face from the neck to the temples. The pain quickly gets worse, peaking within five to ten minutes, with the peak pain lasting from thirty minutes to two hours. It may be accompanied by a red, flushed face. A runny nose, nasal congestion, swelling under or around the eye, or a red or teary eye with a small pupil may occur, usually on the same side as the headache.
Causes and Triggers of Cluster Headaches
Alcohol, tobacco, and drugs that dilate or constrict blood vessels are known to trigger cluster headaches, suggesting that changes in the walls of blood vessels of the head and/or around the eye area may be at least partially responsible. This may be due to a sudden release of histamine or serotonin by body tissues (histamine is released in response to allergies, but there may be other triggers as well).
One research team found that 81 percent of patients with cluster headaches also had sleep apnea, a condition where the person stops breathing for ten seconds or longer while sleeping (Graff-Radford and Newman 2004). This may explain why treatment with oxygen relieves cluster headaches for some people, particularly if the headaches tend to occur at night. People are generally unaware that they suffer from sleep apnea. Symptoms include excessive sleepiness during the day, difficulty concentrating, and poor memory. If you suffer from cluster headaches, you should be evaluated for sleeping disorders.
Note that the triggers and causes of cluster headaches are the same as some of the triggers and causes of migraines, and of trigger points. Oxygen deprivation of muscles cells plays a role in causing cluster headaches, and it also activates trigger points. Though the role of trigger points in activating and perpetuating cluster headaches has not yet been studied, treating trigger points and eliminating perpetuating factors will likely help resolve these type of headaches.
Headaches from Trauma Neck injuries are the most common cause of post-traumatic headaches. In a study of patients following rear-end motor accidents, 62 percent of people reported feeling neck pain within six to seventy-two hours, and of those, 82 percent also reported headache symptoms. Twelve weeks after the accident, 73 percent still had headaches (Packard 2002). Even accidents that may seem minor at the time may cause significant damage; in fact, there is little correlation between the damage to the vehicles or the speeds involved in the accident and the amount of injuries to soft tissue and the cervical spine. Slip and fall injuries can cause damage similar to whiplash. Whiplash injuries can lead to TMJ dysfunction, affecting the muscles in the face and causing headaches due to referred pain.
These types of injuries can cause long-term damage and ongoing problems. Because injured tissues are repaired with dense connective scar tissue, they lack the strength and elasticity of the original, normal tissue. The damaged area is easily reinjured due to weakness and limited range of motion, and the muscle is also more easily fatigued. Damage to muscles, ligaments, joint capsules, and other tissues in the neck, including the sternocleidomastoid and scalene muscles, can lead to central sensitization and thus to chronic headaches (Packard 2002).
Though symptoms from whiplash injuries generally improve over a period of weeks or months, up to 40 percent of people have symptoms that last for more than six months and a small percent become disabled (Packard 2002). Often symptoms disappear after a short time, then recur later. For this reason, I encourage people to wait several months before signing insurance release forms, to make sure the full extent of injuries are known while medical payments for diagnosis and treatment are still available.
It is important for both the patient and the practitioner to recognize that some loss of function is inevitable after a significant injury. However, it’s still likely that you can obtain significant relief from a combination of various therapies. Self-treatment of trigger points can play a big role in reducing pain and restoring function...
Great News: Treating Trigger Points Can Help!
Studies have shown that people who have headaches are almost twice as likely as healthy control subjects to have postural abnormalities, including head-forward posture, and to have trigger points in the back of the neck, particularly the suboccipital muscles (discussed in chapter 11). Interestingly, people with migraines were shown to have the same prevalence of postural abnormalities and number and location of trigger points as people with tension headaches, even when they tend to have one-sided migraines (Marcus et al. 1999).
People who suffer from both migraines and tension-type headaches are far more likely to have a greater number of active trigger points (Marcus et al. 1999). The greater the number of active trigger points, the more frequent and severe the headaches. With one-sided headaches, a greater number of active trigger points are located on the same side as the headache. Trigger points will be more tender during a headache and will probably be more tender just prior to and immediately after the headache.
This means that the probability of trigger points being part or all of the problem in the majority of headaches is likely to be high, and there are estimates that the majority of headaches are due at least in part to trigger points (Simons, Travell, and Simons 1999). So the great news is that you can probably relieve much or all of your headache pain with a combination of trigger point self-treatments [Chapters 10-18] and identifying and eliminating all the perpetuating factors [Part II] to the extent possible.
Treating Headaches with Trigger Point Therapy
If you have headaches, you are likely to have trigger points in your neck and head muscles that, when pressed, will refer pain to the areas where you normally feel your headaches. These areas will likely be tender, too. The intensity of your headaches will correlate with the intensity of the tenderness of the muscles causing the referred pain. In all likelihood, trigger points in more than one muscle of the neck and head are causing overlapping referral patterns, so it is important to locate all of the trigger points involved.
It is important to treat trigger points when you don’t have a headache. You will still be able to identify the trigger points, and treatments should help prevent the onset of a headache in the first place. Don’t wait until you start to feel preliminary headache symptoms; you won’t feel like moving once a severe migraine or other bad headache starts to manifest, let alone go to an appointment. Plus, the increased tenderness of the muscles during a headache will make treatments less tolerable.
Most people make the mistake of discontinuing treatments when their symptoms have subsided to a low level. This is too soon. Ideally, all of your symptoms should be entirely eliminated and you should experience a symptom-free period before you stop regular self-treatments or appointments with a practitioner. And if your symptoms start to return, don’t wait until they get intolerable before you start treatment again. Your condition will just get more complicated again and require a longer treatment period. If you do decide to see a practitioner, at the first visit schedule all of your appointments for the first six weeks. At the end of six weeks, your practitioner can make a recommendation for the next six weeks…
In this chapter you have learned about the most common types of headaches and their symptoms and causes. The longer you’ve been experiencing headaches and the more intense the pain, the greater the likelihood that central sensitization and trigger points are keeping your headache cycle going, even if the initial instigating factors are no longer present. A combination of trigger points and perpetuating factors is probably involved in causing and perpetuating your headaches, which means that by treating both, you are likely to get a great deal of relief from your headaches, and hopefully complete relief. Treat your trigger points when you don’t have a headache. This will help prevent headaches from starting in the first place. Also, it’s unlikely that you’ll feel like treating them once a headache has begun. Don’t discontinue treatments until after you have a headache-free period.
The next chapter will discuss the temporomandibular joint and how problems with both the joint and trigger points in the muscles around the mouth can contribute to headaches.
These Sample Chapters are reprinted with permission from New Harbinger Publications, Inc. "Trigger Point Therapy for Headaches & Migraines: Your Self-Treatment Workbook for Pain Relief," by Valerie DeLaune.