Updated: Jun 2
Have you ever felt like you’re not getting enough blood flow to your brain?
The most common way that I've heard a migraine described by patients is; “The pain starts on one side of my neck, travels to the base of my skull, and then inside my head. This is when I begin to feel the pressure/pain behind my eye and the Migraine begins.”
There may be a physiological explanation to why migraine sufferers have this onset as well as many other related symptoms such as; neck pain (most common), jaw/facial pain, blurry vision, pain behind the eyes, vertigo/dizziness, pressure in-ear, just to name a few.
“The pain starts on one side of my neck, travels to the base of my skull, and then inside my head. This is when I begin to feel the pressure/pain behind my eye and the Migraine begins.”
The Vertebral Arteries and Cranial Nerves
The vertebral arteries are major arteries that travel through the bones in your neck and enter the skull. The importance of these arteries should not be discounted as they supply a major portion of your brain and the cranial nerves with blood and oxygen.
The cranial nerves are a set of twelve important nerves that originate in the brain and each has a unique function. Here is a list of some of the key cranial nerves that are supplied by the vertebral arteries and their function:
The Optic Nerve - sends electrical signals from the eye to the brain, which modifies these signals into a picture of what we see around us.
The Oculomotor Nerve - provides movement to most of the muscles to move the eyeball and upper eyelid.
The Trigeminal Nerve - consists of 3 branches that provide feeling/sensation to the eye, face, and jaw. It also helps you to chew and clench the teeth. Trigeminal neuralgia is a common disorder of the trigeminal nerve that can cause intense pain and facial tics.
The Vestibulocochlear Nerve - communicates changes in position of the head with regard to gravity. The body uses this information to maintain balance and equilibrium. This nerve also helps with hearing.
The Spinal Accessory Nerve - provides motor function to specific muscles in the neck.
Just like water through a hose with a kink in it, the blood flow in these arteries can become disrupted. When the blood flow to these cranial nerves is disrupted, it can reduce blood flow to the area, causing dysfunction.
Although there is an argument for migraines being neurological versus vascular, the two cannot be separated. The blood vessels supply the nerves and the nerves supply electrical conduction to the vessels. In fact, they travel side by side in almost every tissue in your body. I cover the neurological impact more here: "Migraines; a pain in the neck"
How can this occur?
The vertebral artery is particularly prone to mechanical compression at the spinal level of the atlas(C1), which lies at the base of the skull. Here the artery must make a 90 degree turn to wrap around the atlas, which makes it much more prone to compression in this region. The artery is especially vulnerable when you rotate your head, which could be why many people complain of dizziness or become lightheaded upon rotation of the head.
Research suggests that a misalignment of the C1 and C2 vertebra can irritate and compress the vertebral arteries as they wind around the atlas vertebra. This is especially true when there is a severe rotational misalignment in this region.
The Vertebral Artery (red) as it wraps around the Atlas (C1)
An innovative and safe treatment option
Upper Cervical Care is a specialty within the chiropractic profession that focuses on a gentle correction of the C1-C2 vertebra. The goal is to realign these top two bones, taking the pressure off of the surrounding structures such as muscles, nerves and blood vessels.
An Upper Cervical Doctor will analyze a special set of x-rays to identify subtle misalignments in the neck that could be contributing to blood/fluid flow disruption before making any correction to the spine.
These corrections to the cervical spine are not like your traditional chiropractic adjustments. There is no twisting, cracking or popping of the spine. In fact, these adjustments use such light force that most patients describe the adjustment as a, “tap behind their ear.”
Although there are several factors that can contribute to migraines, success with treating the upper cervical misalignments and problem areas within the surrounding soft tissue is undeniable. For more information regarding Upper Cervical Care, click here
Flanagan MF. The Role of the Craniocervical Junction in Craniospinal Hydrodynamics and Neurodegenerative Conditions. Neurol Res Int. 2015;2015:794829. doi:10.1155/2015/794829
Hendrix, Philipp & Griessenauer, Christoph & Foreman, Paul & Shoja, Mohammadali & Tubbs, R.. (2015). Blood Supply of the Cranial Nerves. 10.1016/B978-0-12-410390-0.00031-7.
Jackson R. The Cervical Syndrome. 1977, Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL
Sonne J, Lopez-Ojeda W. Neuroanatomy, Cranial Nerve. [Updated 2019 Apr 3]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470353/
About the Author
Dr. Culig became interested in migraines because his younger sister suffered from them since she was 13 years old. Since then, he has sought out natural ways to treat migraines without the use of drugs or surgery. As a Doctor of Chiropractic, he has spent over 100 hours in post-graduate courses regarding the Upper Cervical spine. He is currently enrolled in a 3-year diplomate program focused on upper cervical spine and related neurovascular conditions such as Migraine and Vertigo.
For more information on Migraines and Upper Cervical click here for FAQ: More Information