If you're someone who is plagued with headaches, you're not alone.
Almost one in six people around the world have a headache on any given day, according to new research by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Listen to the full interview:
It also revealed that 52 percent of the world's population had a headache in the past year while 7 percent experience migraines daily and 9 percent have a tension-type headache daily.
The Headache Clinic founder Helen Tufui tells Karyn Hay although headaches are prevalent, they're not exactly normal - often it's your body's way of telling you something.
"[Researchers] know people with headache and migraine have a sensitised brain stem and if you can figure out what is sensitising the brain stem then you can get to the underlying cause of what is happening with your headache and migraine."
Tufui herself suffered from daily headaches and was fortunate enough to find the cause. She then went to Australia to conduct some studies and came back to New Zealand and opened her clinics.
While there are more than 300 types of headaches and migraines, an international headache disorder classification recognises certain features which set migraines apart.
But what they both have in common is a sensitised brain stem, Tufui says.
Influences on the brain stem, which is at the base of the brain and connects to the spinal cord, include your posture and use of upper neck and back muscles, she says.
"[Researchers] know that the information from the head itself as well as the information from the structures at the top of the neck enter directly into the brain stem.
"There's increasing evidence for the influence that the upper cervical spine or top of the neck has over that area and that's definitely what we're finding in our clinic as well."
A sensitised brain stem will have a reduced tolerance to events like tiredness, stress, dehydration and hormonal fluctuation, she says.
"You can have a pure trigger of every month, bang on, day one or day before your menstrual cycle, always get a headache or migraine but if you desensitise the brain stem by looking at what's causing that sensitivity then you can reduce that threshold, if you like, in bringing that down."
People with headaches and migraines also have a higher level of inflammation throughout their whole body, she says.
"Some people get huge relief from low inflammatory diets, so they can be things like the keto diet ... ensuring you get sleep can also bring down inflammation levels in the body.
"There's quite a few ways you can tackle it, but really it's trying to dig into what's causing it rather than just reaching for the pills.
"That's okay if you get a headache very infrequently but if you're suffering and you're reaching for the pills day after day, you really want to get to the bottom of what's going on there."
Increased screen time can be a trigger too, she says. Her clinic is seeing more children and adolescents who have developed a bad posture due to screen time, and that ultimately affects the brain stem.
"Kids now are getting a device when they're toddlers.
"They are growing up with a head looking down for such long periods of time at a device and that's having a massive effect on the top of the neck which is then leading to noxious information being sent into the brain stem, creating a sensitivity and resulting in a headache.
"Or for children, it can often be stomach pain or food intolerances as well. There's quite a list that goes in behind all that."
But there is a way to have screen time without the harmful effects on your posture. Tufui recommends looking at your biomechanics and how you're sitting.
"You don't have to sit with your hand on your knee and your face right on top of the phone, bent forward, you can actually sit up tall and just nod your head to look down, like your head actually nods on top of your spine without moving your head and your neck together."
The sad fact about CVS is that it is often not diagnosed for up 2.5 years in children and up to 9 years in adults. This is due to its complexity of presenting symptoms and misdiagnosis of gastrointestinal issues or abdominal migraine. It crazily has led to most patients having avoidable medical procedures before getting a proper diagnosis. It’s even recorded that up to 27-50% of CVS sufferers will become migraineurs into adult life.
CVS has a huge impact on quality of life, with increased anxiety and depression, as nausea and vomiting are so debilitating. It is linked to poor psychosocial function and increases in irritable bowel syndrome.
Nausea and vomiting is the cause of 38% of all missed workdays, leisure days, and household activity days. Children are also reported to miss up to 19-24 days of school or childcare. Even scarier than watching your poor children suffer is to learn that 50% of children need IV intervention and hospital admission and 27% of them need this every episode.
We have known for many years that the upper cervical spine has been involved in causing nausea and vomiting. Furthermore, recent research has explained a common underlying condition, which is sensitivity in the brainstem. This is the same for migraine, cervicogenic headache, tension-type headache, and menstrual migraines. The brainstem receives information from two inputs only - the upper cervical area, including the upper 3 joints, one disc with the surrounding muscles, and the trigeminal area of the brain. The brainstem sits at the bottom of the brain, connecting it to the spinal cord, and is nestled in the canal of the upper cervical spine.
So, you can just imagine how much of a direct input the upper cervical has into the brainstem itself. So, back to the sensitivity. This sensitivity in the brainstem reduces our tolerance to normal events, such as poor sleep, stress, dehydration, bright lights, poor head postures, hormonal fluctuation, and foods such as cheese, wine, chocolate, and other additives. Other triggers of CVS can be viral infections and emotional events that include panic attacks, anxiety, and even social events such as parties which are supposed to be fun….sigh!
I bet you are asking, how do children have all this sensitivity at such a young age? They are just starting out. They usually haven’t been subjected to large amounts of stress, binging on alcohol, or significant hormonal fluctuations.
However, they do have a heavy head and weak un-developed deep neck stabilising muscles. These get stronger with age, and this may explain just how they grow out of it. It may also explain why some continue to have symptoms into adolescence or adult life. Especially if they have had a head knock, concussion, or neck injury, which is not uncommon in children as they play, learn and grow.
This may be the reason so many of these children become migraineurs, as this sensitivity remains in silence until the threshold is exceeded and migraine results. That is unless it is addressed and the dysfunction in the upper cervical spine is corrected.
It may be surprising to know that the treatment of CVS is similar to migraine treatment with the use of amitriptyline, a tricyclic antidepressant that works in the brainstem by blocking receptors and anti-nausea drugs. These are being given to children at such a young age which is alarming when considering the long-term effects of medication.
The key is to find out why you or your child have sensitivity in the brainstem. At The Headache Clinic, we frequently treat those with CVS, abdominal migraine, and nausea, vomiting symptoms.
Our practitioners all come from either a physiotherapist or chiropractic background who have undergone special training to diagnose and effectively treat the upper cervical spine and reduce the sensitivity with great success. If any of this resonates with you or your child and you would like to have a chat with one of our practitioners, please feel free to give us a call and request a free 15-minute consult. We are here to help.