How severely are your cluster headaches affecting your life? Your work? Your exercise? Your time with family? Especially because cluster headaches strike out of the blue, how disappointing is it to cancel your commitments at the last moment? And more, how frustrating is it the you haven’t been able to find a solution that has been able to solve the problem.
It’s not like you haven’t been trying either! You’ve been to doctors, specialists, physiotherapists, chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncturists - looking for answers, only to have the problems continue. Sure, you know that you can continue to take medication, but you don’t want that either. Even if they do help, they only cover up the symptoms. What you want is to get to the cause of your cluster headaches in the first place!
So if there was a natural approach that could help your cluster headaches - something that makes sense but that you have not tried - would you be interested? If so, let me explain the role of your upper neck in cluster headaches, and how a unique form of healthcare may be able to help you.
Cluster Headache Symptoms
Cluster headaches or cluster migraines are essentially the same thing. The only difference is the relative severity of the pain and if it includes nausea. A cluster headache is a piercing pain that rips through the head, usually on one side only but can alternate. Symptoms most commonly affect the eyes, the side of the head (in the temples, above the jaw) on through the sinuses. The reason they are called cluster headaches is because they occur in clustered patterns: i.e., for days or weeks at a time, but then inexplicably go into remission for months or even years.
This is the unfortunate trap that so many people who experience cluster headaches fall into: the false belief that because their symptoms are in remission that they are “okay” again. All it actually means is that unless they take the opportunity to figure out why they experience cluster migraines, they are all-but-guaranteed to return.
What no one has ever told you about Cluster Headaches
Cluster headaches are believed to be caused by spasms of the arteries that supply blood to your head and brain. But have you ever considered what causes these spasms in the first place? All arteries in your body are surrounded by a thin layer of smooth muscle, which dilate or constrict the size of the opening, which is what is responsible for changes in your blood pressure. But there is no muscle in the body that contracts without a nerve commanding it to do so.
Skeletal muscles (e.g., muscles in your arms and legs) and controlled by the voluntary part of your nervous system. Smooth muscles, however, are controlled by the autonomic or involuntary part of your nervous system that also controls the function of all your vital organs. More specifically, it is the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system that controls the smooth muscles of your arteries.
The sympathetic nervous system is also commonly known as the “stress-response” system because of its activation in times of acute or chronic stress. So if smooth muscles in the body ever misbehave, it must be because something have negatively affected the function of the sympathetic nerves.
Sympathetic nerves are always active in the body, but as I’m sure you can appreciate, that is something disrupts the normal balance that these nerves in the head, that may be the very thing that brings on the pain associated with a cluster headache. To summarise, cluster headaches aren’t just about spasms in your blood vessels. Cluster headaches signify a problem with your central nervous system: specifically the sympathetic nerves.
The Role of the Upper Neck in Cluster Headaches
So what can affect the function of sympathetic nerves in the head? Certainly acute or chronic stress will activate sympathetic nerves and potentially trigger a cluster headache. However, if that was the full story, then every human being who experienced stress would suffer a cluster headache … and that simply does not happen.
Therefore, there must be something else going on at the same time, and the combination of those elements is what creates the cluster headache. Here is where I will propose the possibility that the disruption to your sympathetic nervous system involves some type of problem with your neck.
The sympathetic nerve branches that supply your neck and head actually exit your spine from the upper part of your back (T1-T3), and then ascend like a chain along the front of the vertebral bodies from C7 up to C1, which is the top vertebra in your neck. Of important note, this sympathetic chain contains a cluster of nerve cell bodies called the superior sympathetic cervical ganglion that is present directly in front of the C1-C2 vertebrae.
The reason this arrangement is so important is because the C1 and C2 vertebrae are unique in your spine. They are the only vertebrae that fully rotate: and when they do so, they have the potential to create a small but significant degree of irritation to the sympathetic nerves.
For only a moment, this irritation is insignificant. Long-term irritation on the other hand may be far more significant. Studies in the 1970s demonstrated that it takes only 15 minutes or irritation as light as 10mm Hg - which is equivalent to the weight of a 10 cent coin - to disrupt the function of a nerve by 50%.
In the context of the superior sympathetic ganglion, these bundles of nerves ultimately supply blood vessels for the entire head and brain. Therefore, irritation at this point may be the very thing that sets the stage for cluster headaches to develop.
(Note: in the exact same location as the superior sympathetic ganglion is the vagus nerve, which supplies information to-and-from your internal organs, and when stimulated may produce feelings of nausea … which as you may recall is a point of distinction between cluster headaches and cluster migraines).
The question then is, why would the upper neck be affecting the sympathetic nerves this way?
The Cause of Upper Neck Problems in Cluster Headaches
Under normal circumstances, when you rotate your head, your C1 (atlas) and C2 (axis) vertebrae pivot on each other. Then, when you bring your head back to neutral, these vertebrae realign themselves. That is normal.
But what do you suppose would happen if you ever suffered a physical injury that disrupted this normal process. Not to the degree that you fractured or dislocated something, but that something happened in a minor head or neck injury that caused these vertebrae to shift just a little bit … but enough that when you rotate your head and then bring it back to centre that the vertebrae to not fully realign?
If this happens, that momentary bit of irritation to the superior sympathetic nerves can become chronic! Have you ever fallen asleep on your stomach with your head turned sideways? And when you woke up, you felt a kink in your neck with a headache coming on? It’s essentially the same thing … but now present 100% of the time!
So even that tiny misalignment multiple over months, years or even decades can add up like compound interest. Now, your brain isn’t stupid, and your body isn’t weak. They will work to adapt to the situation as well as possible.
So yes, there will be long periods when they are able to successfully compensate for the problem. If so, you may have no symptoms whatsoever. You will be in remission. And you won’t suffer any cluster headaches at all!!
But then there will be other periods - usually when you have more stress in your life plus a little more physical stress - that your body just can’t compensate any more, and that’s when the pressure and tension may increase to the point that the cluster headaches come back as the result of the irritation to the sympathetic nerves from the upper part of the neck.
Granted, there are often additional factors that must be considered in cluster headaches, but I will emphasise that the alignment in the upper part of the neck may be a huge part of the problem … but then also one of the keys to finding a solution for cluster headaches.
Neck Treatment for Cluster Headaches
The top bones in your neck - the C1 (atlas) and the C2 (axis) - have a special relationship in the way that they affect the nervous system, including the sympathetic nerves that go to your head and brain.
Unlike vertebrae elsewhere in your spine, the C1 and C2 can misalign in any of a potential 360 degrees of movement. Unfortunately, this specific relationship is not considered by many body therapists including general chiropractors, physiotherapists and massage therapists, who traditionally work on misalignments where these vertebrae have misaligned backwards.
So imagine what would happen if instead, either your C1 or your C2 was misaligned forwards … into that superior sympathetic ganglion that we mentioned earlier? It would make you worse! So it is possible that the different doctors, specialists and therapists that you have seen have been in the right area to help your cluster headaches, but they’ve been working in the wrong direction!
As a result, there’s been a a key piece of information missing that you’ve needed to get you a breakthrough with your cluster headaches.
Here is where Blair upper cervical care may be able to help you.
Can Upper Cervical Care Help your Migraines?
Blair upper cervical care is a unique form of chiropractic developed in the USA for he purpose of correcting the alignment of the C1 and C2 vertebrae in the neck so that your body can work they way that it is supposed to. That includes your sympathetic nerves, which control those smooth muscles that are implicated as the cause of cluster headaches.
Now, you may see the word “chiropractor” and think that you’ve already tried it but that it didn’t work. However, Blair upper cervical care is different.
Unlike general spinal manipulation, Blair upper cervical care is a specific and custom-tailored approach that focuses on the degree of misalignment by considering things not done elsewhere in any other chiropractic or medical office.
The procedure involves a detailed analysis of your health condition including specialised digital x-rays that allow us to see things not considered with standard x-rays or even MRIs … including if your C1 or C2 have misaligned in the exact opposite direction than you’ve had worked on before!
The procedure itself is performed without any twisting or cracking. The key with the procedure is to be as gentle and quick as possible. In fact, most people remark that they don’t feel anything at all … but they are delighted when they experience the benefits and relief from their cluster migraines if they have not been able to achieve it before..
Have you Tried Upper Cervical Care to Help your Cluster Headaches?
As I mentioned before, cluster headaches are often a multifactorial problems that involve a combination of stress plus physical problems with the alignment of your upper neck. Even then, upper cervical care is not a treatment for cluster headaches. It is a method of helping your body take better care of itself so that you don’t need to experience these types of problems in the first place. Where things like medication try to control the symptoms, we are simply looking to remove a potential source of irritation or interference, and by doing so, allow your body to heal naturally.
For all the challenges and frustrations dealing with cluster headaches, remember that at the core the problem is one that is affecting your nervous system … especially the sympathetic aspect of your nervous system. Even if you’ve tried general chiropractic and been to “headache and migraine specialists,” if you have not tried a Blair upper cervical care, it might be the very thing that you actually need to help your cluster headaches.
If you or a loved one is looking for a natural solution for cluster headaches, please feel free to contact our practice in North Lakes at 07 3188 9329 to speak with one of our doctors about how may be able to help you. Even if you are outside of the Brisbane area, still feel free to contact us, and we will be happy to help find you a qualified doctor in your area.
Gaul C, Meßlinger K, Holle-Lee D, Neeb L. [Pathophysiology of Headaches]. [Article in German]. Dtsch Med Wochenschr. 2017 Mar;142(6):402-408. doi: 10.1055/s-0042-111694. Epub 2017 Mar 22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28329901
Hoffmann J, May A. Diagnosis, pathophysiology, and management of cluster headache. Lancet Neurol. 2018 Jan;17(1):75-83. doi: 10.1016/S1474-4422(17)30405-2. Epub 2017 Nov 23. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29174963
Kumagai H, Oshima N, Matsuura T, et al. Importance of rostral ventrolateral medulla neurons in determining efferent sympathetic nerve activity and blood pressure. Hypertens Res. 2012 Feb;35(2):132-41. doi: 10.1038/hr.2011.208. Epub 2011 Dec 15.
Millstine D, Chen CY, Bauer B. Complementary and integrative medicine in the management of headache. BMJ. 2017 May 16;357:j1805. doi: 10.1136/bmj.j1805. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28512119
Sharpless SK. Susceptibility of spinal roots to compression block. The Research Status of Spinal Manipulative Therapy. NINCDS monograph 15, DHEW publication (NIH) 76-998:155, 1975.
Win NN, Jorgensen AMS, Chen YS, Haneline MT. Effects of Upper and Lower Cervical Spinal Manipulative Therapy on Blood Pressure and Heart Rate Variability in Volunteers and Patients With Neck Pain: A Randomized Controlled, Cross-Over, Preliminary Study. J Chiropr Med. 2015;14(1):1-9. doi:10.1016/j.jcm.2014.12.005.
Yarnitsky D, Goor-Aryeh I, Bajwa ZH, et al. 2003 Wolff Award: Possible parasympathetic contributions to peripheral and central sensitization during migraine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12890124