Ask Dr. Sabers: Can Spine Injury Cause Migraine Headaches?
Migraine headaches are debilitating. Some migraine sufferers report that neck and back injuries increase the frequency of their migraines. Summit interventional spine specialist Dr. Sabers explains the connection between back pain and migraine headaches.
“As an interventional spine specialist at Summit,” says Dr. Sabers, “I find that about 15 percent of my practice concerns neck pain with associated headache. There are approximately 20 different types of headache, including a migraine, and spine injury is a factor in the headache pain I treat.”
Spine injury and headaches
Dr. Sabers points out that he treats primarily cervicogenic headaches— those caused by a problem within the neck or cervical spine. “The most common problem in the cervical spine that causes headaches is degeneration of the facet joints,” he explains. “Facet joints are the small paired joints on the back part of the bony spinal column. When upper facet joints cause pain, it is felt in the upper part of the neck and into the head. There are several different reasons for the facet joint damage that causes cervical spine-related headache pain.”
- In older patients, wear-and-tear arthritis or inflammation within one of the facet joints can cause muscle spasm and tightness that refers pain up into the base of the skull. This muscle tightness can also cause a headache that starts at the base of the skull and wraps up and over the head.
- In younger people, joint injury is typically the result of trauma. That trauma could be a fall or, most commonly, a motor vehicle accident. Trauma may injure the cartilage within the joint or stretch the capsule to the joint; either condition can lead to chronic pain with associated problems, including headache.
“When a joint in the cervical spine is injured or inflamed,” says Dr. Sabers, “the injury gives rise to secondary muscle tightness and stiffness that causes pain at the base of the skull where the muscles attach to the skull. Whenever you hold a muscle tight in your body, that muscle starts to ache because it’s deprived of oxygen. Stiff tightened muscles can limit range of motion and make it painful to turn your head.”
Migraines vs other headaches
Unlike cervicogenic headaches caused by injury or inflammation, migraine headaches are thought to be a vascular-based abnormality in the brain. “To understand the relationship between migraine headaches and cervicogenic headaches,” explains Dr. Sabers, “it’s important to distinguish between a ‘trigger’ and a ‘cause.’ Migraine headaches aren’t caused by neck injury, but they can be triggered by injury.”
There are a number of “triggers” that can prompt a migraine; these triggers include certain foods, bright lights, and wine. Neck pain is another migraine trigger.
“Imagine a migraine patient who gets one migraine a month,” suggests Dr. Saber. “Then, this patient injures his neck in a motor vehicle accident, and starts getting migraines three days a week. The neck trauma caused by the accident is triggering the increase in the number of monthly migraines.
“At Summit, we can help migraine patients for whom neck pain is a trigger,” says Dr. Sabers. “By treating the neck pain with an array of treatments from physical therapy through injections, we work to reduce the neck pain and get this patient back to a once-a-month migraine.”
Neck and back pain treatment
Summit Orthopedics is home to the area’s top spine specialists for migraine-related neck and back pain treatment. If you are experiencing symptoms or pain, the spine team at Summit Orthopedics will work with you to confirm a diagnosis and develop an appropriate conservative treatment plan to address your problems. If nonsurgical treatments fail to support your lifestyle goals, fellowship-trained spine surgeons are here to consult with you and discuss appropriate surgical options.
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