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Causes of Headaches


How can tight muscles cause headaches? What is myofascial pain?

Muscular headaches are the most common type of headaches, so let’s take a look at how tight neck or face muscles can create a sensation of pain in the head.

If any muscle in your body tightens up and maintains that tension for a long period of time, it will eventually develop knots or nodule-like spots inside it. These knots are easy to find because in addition to having a distinct, nodule-like texture, they are tender when you apply pressure to them. These tender knots within a contracted muscle are called myofascial trigger points. (Myo means muscle, and fascia is the connective tissue that holds it together.)

Although trigger points are sensitive to pressure, they initially don’t cause any problems. Yet over time, myofascial trigger points start producing a sensation of pain in distant sites. That type of pain is called referred pain, because it originates from places outside of where you perceive it.

Pain referred from myofascial trigger points is called myofascial pain. If left untreated, myofacial pain may become chronic and develop into a condition known as myofascial pain syndrome (or myofascial pain disorder).

Each muscle in the body tends to develop myofascial trigger points in specific locations. And each trigger point has a specific, predictable and reproducible pattern of pain referral. Trigger points in the neck muscles refer pain to various areas of the head and trigger points in the face muscles refer pain to the head and face.

Below are some examples of referral patterns for specific trigger points in the neck and face muscles associated with headaches. The black x sign indicates a trigger point within a muscle and areas marked in red illustrate where that trigger point sends referred pain:
head pain trigger points

How can neck joints (or other neck structures) cause headaches?

If joints, discs, or other innervated structures of the neck are inflamed or irritated, you may feel a headache, neck pain, or both. This happens because of the sharing of nerve tracts between your neck and head areas. Let’s take a look at how it works:

If something irritates a structure in your neck, your neck’s pain receptors pick up the pain signals and send them along nerve fibers to the spinal cord, and from there to the brain. The brain then interprets the signals and you become aware of pain. The nerves traveling to the brain inside your spinal cord form special “tracts”. (These tracts can be compared to roads along which nerve impulses travel to the brain). Your neck and head nerve fibers use the same spinal tract, which creates a potential for confusion. When a neck pain signal reaches the brain, due to intermingling of the neck and head sensory nerve fibers inside the spinal cord tract, the brain may “think” that the signal actually originated in the head. In this case you will feel a headache, even though what really hurts is your neck.

What are most common causes of tension headaches and cervicogenic headaches?

If your neck muscles are dysfunctional and tight, eventually the joints, discs, and ligaments of your neck will also become affected and will develop mechanical dysfunctions. Conversely, inflamed joints, ligaments and cervical discs will eventually cause tightening of the neck muscles. Because of this, predisposing factors and possible causes for tension headaches and cervicogenic headaches are practically the same. These headache causes include:

1. Behavioral and life-style causes:
  • Poor posture (forward head, slumped shoulders)
  • Daily work in a seated position (e.g. computer work) or in a position that requires looking down for long periods of time (e.g. jewelry making, knitting, using microscope)
  • Prolonged activities involving repetitive hand and arm movements (e.g. work in assembly line)
  • Strenuous manual labor or physical activity (especially if performed repetitively)


2. Emotional causes:
  • Emotional or intellectual stress


3. Structural and medical causes:
  • Abnormal alignment of cervical vertebrae
  • Unbalanced bite
  • TMJ disorder
  • Grinding or clenching of the teeth
  • Eye strain
  • Injury affecting joints or muscles of the neck (e.g., whiplash injury, neck injury due to a fall or blow to the head)
  • Degenerative diseases of the neck (neck arthritis, degenerative disc disease, cervical spondylosis)


“Teresa is the first and the only person capable of providing a method of therapy that alleviates the severe pain of my headaches. After finishing a round of manual therapy treatments with Teresa I have now lived for a full year and a half headache-free.”

“Teresa has really changed my life. I saw her because I was suffering from debilitating headaches. Teresa truly understood my pain, where it came from, and how it affected me and during her treatments she was finding areas on my face, neck, and shoulders that were triggering my headaches. I no longer suffer from headaches. I have my life back!” Read more about what former patients say >



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