Patients with tension-type headaches (TTH) often experience neck pain and stiffness, which may be a contributing factor in their present headaches. Thus, it’s not uncommon for a doctor of chiropractic to use manual therapies and provide home exercise instruction focused on improving neck function in the effort to reduce headache frequency and intensity. It may surprise a TTH patient that care may also address areas of the body that seem unrelated to the head. For the TTH patient, they may receive treatment and be asked to perform at-home stretches to address their tight hamstrings. Why is that?
The superficial back line is comprised of the muscles and associated tissues that start in the back of the head and run down the neck, back, and legs. These muscles work together to keep the body upright, but when there’s a problem in one part of this chain, it can lead to issues elsewhere. Several studies have observed an association between tightness in the hamstrings—the largest muscle in the superficial chain—and tightness in the neck muscles. One study found that individuals with increased tension and shortening of the hamstrings are more likely to have neck and shoulder pain. A possible explanation is that tight hamstrings can cause the pelvis to tilt backward, which can contribute to the forward head posture—a postural fault that can place increased strain on the muscles in the back of the neck and contribute to headaches.
In a study that included 30 TTH patients, researchers split participants into two groups: one group received treatment to relax the hamstrings through a guided stretching routine in the office and the other received electrotherapy to stimulate the hamstring muscles. Both groups received instruction to perform self-myofascial release at home. Assessments conducted after four weeks of treatment revealed the hamstring relaxation group experienced greater outcomes with respect to headache-related disability, neck pain, and cervical range of motion.
This finding highlights the importance of examining the whole patient—something chiropractors are trained to do—and not just focusing on the area of chief complaint as issues elsewhere in the body may be the underlying cause or a contributing cause to the patient’s condition.