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Can Your Chronic Headache Be Causing Your Back Pain?

It is a well-known fact that low back pain and headaches are the leading causes of disability all over the world. With the ever increasing stress of both personal and professional life and people not finding enough time to sit back and relax is further compounding to increased number of people complaining of low back pain and headaches. With regard to headaches, there are several different variants of headaches and every type of headache has a separate diagnostic criteria. The most common form of headache is the migraine and tension type headaches. Medication overuse headaches are also quite common.[1,2,3]

Tension type and migraine headaches are featured in the top two of the eight causes of chronic diseases and injury around the world and affects around 10% of the world population. Around 4% of adults worldwide complain of headaches for more than 15 days every month for more than a period of 3 months. Low back pain again is quite common among the working professionals all over the world. This condition also constitutes to a significant number of missed days at work.[1,2,3]

In fact both low back pain and headaches features right at the top of the list of conditions that account for people living with disability. However, both these conditions are considered as separate entity and are treated differently. However, some researchers have come up with a theory that both headaches and low back pain occur concurrently. Thus taking both these conditions as a single entity and treating them accordingly can provide better results in terms of pain relief according to the experts.[1,2,3]

A systematic review of twin studies has identified a possible link between headaches and low back pain. People who have both headaches and low back pain constitute a small group that may be better managed when their conditions are taken as a single entity and managed accordingly.[1,2,3] This article throws light on whether chronic headaches may be causing low back pain.

Can Your Chronic Headache Be Causing Your Back Pain?

A study done in Germany in 2013 found an association between chronic migraine and tension-type headaches and low back pain. Now researchers from the University of Warwick in the UK have come up with even a closer link between the two conditions. Their review has been published in the Journal of Headache and Pain. The review mentioned 14 studies of varying sample size involved with the smallest one involving only 88 participants and the largest involving more 400,000 people.[3]

The main focus of the study was to focus on chronic headaches and persistent low back pain. For the study they ensured that the participants had migraine headaches and low back pain for more than 15 days of the month for at least a period of three months. The location of the back pain was described as between the bottom of rib cage and buttock creases.[3]

After analyzing data from all the studies they came to a conclusion that all the studies proved an association between the two conditions and that a person with chronic headaches was twice likely to have back pain and vice versa. This has been clearly stated by Professor Martin Underwood of the Warwick Medical School. He also stated that the link was strongest in people who had migraines rather than other forms of headaches.[3]

However, the quality of the results cannot be considered as the best due to significant inconsistencies in the study design and the variability in the definition of the disorders. Despite that, Professor Martin Underwood believes that the findings of the study are quite interesting just because of the fact that both these conditions were looked upon as separate entities till now and were managed by different specialities.[3]

Professor Underwood states that at least for some people there is some commonality as to what is causing the problem. As to the cause there is not much of clarity among researchers but there are some theories. Professor Underwood states that one theory is that there might be some association between how people react to pain making some people more sensitive to the physical causes of migraines and low back pain and how the body reacts to them and causes disability also plays a role.[3]

It is the opinion of the team as a whole that both chronic headaches and low back pain should be treated together. As of now, medications are available to both prevent and treat migraine headaches. Back pain is basically managed by exercises, pain medication, and even psychological treatments. It is important that people with both headaches and back pain should be given adequate support and management techniques to improve their quality of life.[3]

Additionally, a combined treatment for both these disorders also may ease off the financial burden from the patients by decreasing the cost of medication and therapy sessions. However, Professor Underwood states that further research is required to understand the exact mechanism that is at play which forms the basis of the association between chronic headaches and back pain.[3]


Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Sheetal DeCaria, M.D. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 2, 2021

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