The upper cervical area of the spine refers to the two vertebrae located at the top of the spine, directly underneath the head. C1 (known as Atlas,) along with C2 (known as Axis,) are chiefly responsible for the rotation and flexibility of the head and neck. Like the rest of the vertebrae, they are extremely vulnerable to injury and trauma, especially trauma to the head through auto or sporting accidents.
Because so many nerves transmit through the cervical region (to and from the brain,) trauma to this area results in problems to other parts of the body. This is where the relationship between the upper cervical area and headaches becomes evident. If these vertebrae become displaced, even slightly, chronic head pain can occur. Unless the neck injury is addressed, the symptoms persist.
Upper cervical care involves addressing the position and function of these injured cervical vertebrae, particularly C1 and C2. Realigning these vertebrae may restore proper function to the area and reduce or eliminate many types of headaches.
The most common types of headaches for which people seek upper cervical care are migraine, cluster and tension headaches. Migraine headaches are characterized by intense pain on either one or both sides of the head. Pain is usually located around the temples or behind one ear or eye. The pain is so severe that it often causes extreme sensitivity to light, dizziness and may even lead to vomiting. Migraines may occur with or without ‘aura.’ Aura refers to visual symptoms which occur 10 to 30 minutes prior to the onset of the headache. They are usually in the form of flashing lights, lines, blind spots or even temporary blindness.
Cluster headaches almost always occur on only one side of the head. Their onset is so sudden and intense, cluster headaches have been described as “worse than childbirth.” In fact, the doctor who originally identified and researched cluster headaches characterized their pain as being able “to drive normal people to suicide.”
Tension headaches are sometimes called ’stress headaches.’ They often start midday and usually consist of a dull, aching pain rather than a sharp, intense one. They start gradually and slowly build in intensity. Tension headaches may last anywhere from less than one to several hours.
Of course, not every headache falls into one of these categories. The type and degree of pain varies from person to person. However, if any headache occurs more often than on an occasional or sporadic basis, it’s safe to assume that there may be an underlying cause. Continually treating chronic and recurrent headaches with pain medication may temporarily ease the symptoms, but it won’t cure the problem.
Many of these headaches improve significantly while under upper cervical care. The number of visits required varies by individual, as well as type and frequency of headache. A first visit to an upper cervical chiropractor usually involves a spinal evaluation including neurological tests and x-rays to assess alignment and function for each individual case. Patients often notice an improvement in symptoms, sometimes after only a few visits with the doctor.
(Editor's note: Remember the objective of upper cervical care is to correct head neck misalignment that is interfering with proper brain to body communication. When this is corrected the body functions at a higher level and can often correct other problems more efficiently on its own. Please do not confuse upper cervical care as a treatment for any condition, disease or symptom.)