Headaches and Back Pain Connected

Have you ever wondered if having one type of pain problem makes you more likely to hurt in other locations? For example, does having sore knees mean you are more prone to hurt somewhere else in the body like, say, in the neck?

A recent study done in Germany and published in the March issue of Pain provides a compelling example of how closely one pain problem can associate with another. In this study, researchers looked at the correlation between headaches and low back pain and they found a startling connection. They found that people who suffered from the two most common types of headaches, migraines and tension headaches, were significantly more likely to also suffer from low back pain. Their results also suggested that the more chronic the headache problem appeared to be that the more likely an individual is to also suffer from chronic back pain.

You may be asking why on earth does a situation exist where having one significant pain problem (headaches) make you more prone to having a second and seemingly unrelated pain condition (low back pain)? Well, research seems to suggest that headache problems like migraines can lead to significant remodeling inside the brain, and in particular, changes to a number of different regions affected by pain. These changes may be making the brain more sensitive to pain from other parts of the body, like low back pain as an example. This phenomenon is known as central sensitization.

This clustering of different pain problems has been shown to exist in other studies, as well. For example, headaches have also correlated with the presence of neck pain, fibromyalgia, TMJ, and joint pain. In addition, past studies have found migraines linked to affective disorders like depression, anxiety, and chronic fatigue.

This most recent study also pointed out that certain risk factors seem to be associated with the double whammy of chronic headaches and back pain. One of these risk factors was obesity, and interestingly another risk factor was actually the use of pain medications. For example, their data suggested that the continued to use of pain medications for headache treatment seemed to correlate with a greater chance of experiencing back pain. While this doesn’t mean that the pain medications are directly causing the low back pain, this may be an example of medications contributing to some of the changes that lead to an increase in sensitivity to other types of pain.

Examining these findings further may provide clues to better understand what factors lead to the progression toward chronic pain.


James's picture

I have back pain and headaches, and I often wondered if the two were related or if I was just lucky enough to deal with both. Realizing that pain meds may be making me more sensitive to the pain is an eye opener too.

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