Headache-B-Gone: My Visits to the Chiropractor

I’ve written a lot about the various episodes of pain I’ve suffered (chronicling my daily pain, for example, and how it’s affected my personality over time). A large part of that pain has come in the various forms of headaches, which I’ve suffered throughout my life. My teen years were dominated by eye-piercing migraines that literally had me screaming in the middle of the night, and my early to mid-twenties were tormented with stress-related blood pressure and tension headaches (and, as I discovered in 2011, pain relating to severely infected wisdom teeth as well).

However, over the last couple of years, a new type of headache had arisen to claim the crown which migraines and blood pressure seemed to have relinquished at last…and this one seemed the most resistant to treatment of them all. Well, at least until the chiropractor got to it. 😀

Symptoms: Dull Ice-Pick Through the Temple, and Exhaustion

I thought I had seen the last of my headache problems when I had my wisdom teeth out in November 2011. But the pain only gave me a brief few months’ respite, and then returned.

This pain, however, was a little different from the burning-nerve headaches I’d had with my wisdom teeth. I wasn’t exactly lying in bed clutching my head and crying, but it was still head pain, and it exhausted me. It seemed I just couldn’t get enough sleep, and as soon as I woke up, my head began to scream at me again. But I was also wakeful during nights because I dreaded laying my head to the pillow–it seemed that was when my headaches would begin, dulled only by falling asleep. It was a strange paradox.

It became slowly worse, as 2012 ended and 2013 began; I found myself slipping back into the routine of “doing only what I needed to do” because trying to do any more left me unspeakably tired. And eventually, the headache, which resembled a dull ice pick being slowly tapped into my skull by my own pulse, dominated every day and every night. It was a never-ending pain–it was not “the worst headache I’d ever had,” but it just DIDN’T STOP.

No medicine would touch this pain, either; it laughed off Tylenol, shrugged off Aleve, and bowed only momentarily to Advil and Advil Migraine before flaring right back up again. Even my prescribed muscle relaxer, Flexeril, could only tame it for a few hours before it was back bad as ever. The headache might switch sides of my head 4 or 5 times a day, but it was CONSTANT; it was a siege, a siege I was rapidly losing.

By the end of July 2013, I had had ENOUGH. I felt as if my life were being controlled by the headache; my daily and weekly plans revolved around “whether my head hurt or not.” And I was NOT going to live my life like this yet again, not after what I went through in 2011 with my teeth. I didn’t know what to do, other than to start seeing specialists, since my primary care doctor was just as stumped by these headaches as I was.

The Chiropractor Visit: One More Step before the Neurologist

On the encouragement and recommendations of a couple of friends, I finally made an appointment to see a local chiropractor on the last Friday in July. (That morning, I woke up with yet another headache tapping away at my temple, and I was glad–I wanted the chiropractor to see the headache in action, so they could more accurately see what was happening.)

Once I got to the appointment and was taken back into the office, I described the headache pain in as full detail as I could; the chiropractor listened and nodded, seeming to understand all the little pieces of information I was offering. As I paused, enduring yet another surge of pain, she asked, “Your headache is on the left side of your head, isn’t it?”

I was taken aback by this; I had not told her which side of my head the pain was on, only that I was experiencing a headache at the moment. I hadn’t even made a motion toward my head at all. But she was right–it was currently tap-tap-tapping away at my left temple. “Yes, ma’am,” I answered. “But how did you know?”

“Your left trapezius muscle is visibly swollen–that usually means the muscle is in spasm,” she replied, and she showed me exactly where it was; it was the muscle joining my neck and shoulder, which was not only tender to touch, but was hotter than the surrounding skin. “I’m not 100% sure that this is the sole cause of your headache,” she said as she examined the trapezius muscle, “but this is certainly part of it. After the X-ray, we’ll know more. In the meantime, let’s get you on the muscle stimulator and try to relieve this muscle spasm.”

The attendants then put me on this mythical-seeming “muscle stimulator,” a simple-looking device with two little paddles which were laid on either side of my neck where it joined my shoulders. Within only 8 minutes, this treatment had my left shoulder feeling almost completely loose and free, and the headache was GONE. (The sensation of the muscle spasm breaking apart felt like peeling apart stuck-together vinyl; the very small electric current running through the muscle fibers felt like thousands of tiny fingers massaging under my skin.) Then they took an X-ray, and I was finished with my new-patient appointment, already feeling much relieved.

The Result: The “Headache” Wasn’t a Headache at All!

Once the results of my X-ray came back, the last of the mystery was resolved. My neck vertebrae, as seen in the X-ray, were clearly curving forward over my chest rather than being settled more atop my shoulders (this was likely from years of hunching over the computer keyboard). Over time, my trapezius muscles, which connected my overextended neck to my shoulders, began to spasm from being stretched into an unnatural position.

The spasms became gradually worse and worse, until the inflamed muscles began to choke the nerve endings leading up my neck and ending in my temples. Presto–a “headache” that had nothing to do with my head at all! And this was more than a simple “tension” headache, too; this was the result of severe muscle spasms that simply could not be alleviated without treatment (I should know, I tried).

Where I Stand Now

Armed with this information, I began an aggressive 3-times-a-week course of treatment in early August, consisting of time on the muscle stimulator and spinal adjustments, all to help pull the neck, shoulders, and upper spine back into happy alignment. This, plus some assigned chiropractic stretches to be done twice daily, and some home care advice regarding treatment of inflamed muscles, has been my treatment plan.

But I am glad to report that after several weeks, I am no longer suffering quite so many of those exhausting headaches. (There have been a couple of bad ones, but now they pop up every couple of weeks or so, rather than multiple times a day!) The chiropractors are hopeful that in time, I can come in whenever I need to rather than having to come in 2 or 3 times a week (I’m currently down to 2 treatments per week and doing fairly well).

This has taken a lot of work and a lot of rethinking on how I lead my life (no more extended writing/coding sessions while sitting hunched over the keyboard, for instance). I have to be a lot more careful with my neck and shoulders to prevent them going into spasm; for instance, I’ve had to toss aside one of the two pillows I used to sleep on, realizing that sleeping on two stacked pillows was angling my neck at such a strange angle that the muscles went into spasm almost automatically. (No wonder I couldn’t sleep!!)

Going forward, I will likely have to continue doing the stretches for years to prevent future headaches. But hey, if a 10-minute series of stretches twice a day keeps me from suffering for days at a time, I’ll do it! 😀

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