Migraines are the most common neurological disorder in the developed world According to a 2013 study in the journal Headache, 16.6% of adults report having migraines or severe headaches. They also found that headache was the 5th leading cause of emergency room visits in the US. Because it is so common, many people underestimate how disabling a severe headache can be. Many of the patients I see with headaches talk about how it can cause them to take dozens of sick days at work and how it impacts their relationship with friends and family.
Historically, chiropractors with a focus on correcting the upper cervical spine have seen a great amount of success in helping headache patients, but little research has been done that explains why. Last year, a group of Canadian doctors set out to understand why the upper neck is such a problem for headache sufferers. The initial results have started to change our understanding of headaches and other neurological disorders.
The researchers studied a small sample of people with chronic migraine headaches. They studied these patients using magnetic resonance angiography. Each patient had a neurologist verify their diagnosis and were sent for a study that measured blood flow going in and out of the head. Each patient was evaluated for a structural shift in the top bone of the spine called the atlas. The authors noted that those with a displacement of the Atlas had sluggish blood flow out of the skull which caused old blood and cerebral spinal fluid to back up into the head. When these patients received a correction of the atlas, 90% reported improvement in headache symptoms in conjunction with an improvement venous blood flow leaving the head.
Why does a venous back up cause headaches? Venous blood is full of metabolic waste and deoxygenated blood. When you couple that with the increased pressure pushing back into the head, you have a recipe for major problems. Although there is more pressure going back into the head, the skull will not allow pressure to rise because it is a solid, immovable object. The end result is the extra venous pressure will lead to softer tissues in the head to shrink or degenerate; namely, brain tissue.
Two years ago, I had a young lady referred to my office by a neurologist in Jacksonville’s Mayo Clinic. She was 18 years old at the time and had been suffering with DAILY migraines after a fall from a horse when she was 5. It had forced her into being home schooled, with the possibility of going away to college a virtual fantasy. Our testing revealed that her atlas was the culprit, and within a few weeks of gentle corrections she was headache-free and the opportunity to go to a school in California was now a reality.
On the surface, it seems hard to believe that such a small thing could cause such a major problem. After all, it’s just a small bone, shifted a small amount, blocking a small amount of fluid. Just remember that it just takes a small bit of cholesterol to form a small clot, and tiny microrganisms can wreak some major havoc. The one thing we should all remember is that we’re talking about the health of the brain and spinal cord, and small changes can affect the brain in big ways.