Scientists now believe that chronic headaches and back pains in most cases are related and shouldn't be treated as separate conditions
Persistent headaches and chronic back pain can each be debilitating on their own. Scientists have now found that people who have one of these health conditions are twice as likely to experience the other one too.
Pain that occurs for more than 15 days in a month, for three or more consecutive months, is known as chronic pain. Both chronic back pain and headaches are among the top five causes of life-years lost to disability.
Typically, medical practitioners look at headaches and chronic back pain as separate conditions with independent causes and different courses of treatment - unless there’s an underlying health condition such as fibromyalgia, in which case the two are considered together.
Now, a research team at the University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire NHS Trust, Coventry, UK, has found that persistent headaches and lower back pain are comorbid conditions. That is, they tend to occur together in most cases. This holds for all types of headaches, including primary headaches (which are not caused by an underlying medical condition) such as tension-type headaches and migraines. The researchers reviewed 14 studies to arrive at this conclusion.
People living with tension-type headaches experience tightness in the muscles of their face, neck or shoulders. Their headaches also feel like a band tightening around their heads. Migraines usually occur on one side of the head and can be accompanied by visual symptoms such as blind spots or flashes of light.
Experts are now wondering if the two conditions — chronic back pain and persistent headache — have the same cause and can hence be treated as one.
“A combined approach to treating both conditions could reduce pill-burden, medication overuse, and provide a holistic treatment approach for two chronic pain syndromes,” wrote Arani Vivekanantham, co-author of the study and a resident at the University of Manchester.
Why we experience pain
Pain is how our body alerts us that there is something wrong with it. Ironically, unless there is an underlying disease or an injury that explains the persistent pain, it is difficult to pinpoint its cause.
There is some evidence that chronic pain super-sensitises nerves to pain signals which then start to amplify them. Simply put, when someone is in a lot of pain for a long time, their nerves become super sensitive and they amplify the pain signals so the person experiences even more pain than they would have otherwise.
It is really hard to desensitise neurons once they have been super-sensitised. Additionally, people who suffer from anxiety and depression have a lower threshold of pain and hence tend to suffer more from persistent pain.
Back pain and headaches
The most logical link between the two different types of pain is individual psychology. If you have a lower threshold for pain or have super-sensitised nerves, chances are you’ll be prone to more than one type of pain.
Over time, researchers have also found biological associations between chronic back pain and headaches.
A 1994 study showed that overuse of painkiller (analgesics) and greater muscle tension could be the cause of persistent headaches in people with chronic lower back pain.
A 2013 study argued that chronic headache is a bit different from a primary headache. The reason: pain perception. People with chronic pain tend to experience pain more acutely. This saps their ability to withstand pain, making them more susceptible to various other kinds of chronic pain - lower back pain being one.
A 2017 study suggested that calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) that helps us perceive and respond to harmful stimuli, has a shared role in the manifestation of both migraine type headache and lower back pain. Peptides are short-chain amino acids that are made of the same stuff as proteins, but they are too small to qualify as proteins.
“Chronic pain remains one of the most neglected conditions despite the fact that so many people go through it in India,” said Dr Ayush Pandey, a health practitioner associated with myUpchar.com.
“Unrealistic expectations of short-term pain control often lead to over-prescription of drugs (opioids in particular), and even invasive interventions such as surgery or nerve blockade. If chronic back pain and headaches have a direct association, it would only be ideal to manage both the conditions in combination rather than as separate entities,” he added.
Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health. For more information, please read our articles on Back Pain and Headaches.
The information provided here is intended to provide free education about certain medical conditions and certain possible treatment. It is not a substitute for examination, diagnosis, treatment, and medical care provided by a licensed and qualified health professional. If you believe you, your child or someone you know suffers from the conditions described herein, please see your health care provider immediately. Do not attempt to treat yourself, your child, or anyone else without proper medical supervision. You acknowledge and agree that neither myUpchar nor firstpost is liable for any loss or damage which may be incurred by you as a result of the information provided here, or as a result of any reliance placed by you on the completeness, accuracy or existence of any information provided herein.
Updated Date: Oct 01, 2019 17:03:42 IST
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