Tension headaches can literally be debilitating. We all know the symptoms: It may start with some neck soreness or pain at the base of the skull. The pain creeps up the back of the head and makes its way over to your ears, then to what feels like directly behind your eyes or forehead. Many of us immediately head for the bottle of "pain relievers” or a cold pack to put on our forehead. In this piece, we'll address the source of this pain and what to do about it.
Neck muscles that run from the upper and middle neck down to the lower neck and shoulder blades are usually the initial cause of tension headaches. There are various muscles that can contribute to the pain, but the ones that connect the upper neck to the shoulder blade (levator scapula and upper trapezius) and smaller muscles that connect the first two vertebrae to the skull (suboccipital muscles) are the major culprits. When one set gets irritated, the other quickly follows. Once the small set is irritated their reflex is to tighten up, causing the nerve at the back of the head that travels up the skull to be inflamed. This causes the trademark symptoms of a headache with which we are all familiar.
Either set of muscles can be irritated by increased tension caused by the muscle being too stretched, or too contracted or tight. Most of us don’t differentiate between the two and think that stretching is the answer. But that may only be half the answer.
Generally, stretching the small upper set of muscles is alright, but the long ones connected to the shoulder blade are usually overstretched already. Stretching them more might not help, but rather make the pain worse. If your thumb was being held back, you wouldn't try to stretch it back more to make the pain go away, would you? Most likely, you would try to get rid of the tension. The same is true for the upper trapezius and levator scapula; strengthening is the answer.
On the next page, learn simple exercises that can help relieve tension headaches.
Try these simple exercises to help relieve tension headaches.
- Sit with the head and arms supported for 15-30 minutes. The neck should be in good alignment with the body and the arms should be supported so that the elbows are not lowered to meet their support.
- Chin tuck exercise. Lie on the floor with a small, rolled-up towel under your neck. Gently tuck the chin down while keeping the teeth lightly together. Don’t let the head come off the surface (floor or bed) or the neck come off the towel. Hold the tucked position for 5-10 seconds. Repeat 10-15 times. You will feel some increased tension temporarily while doing this exercise, but relief should follow.
- Standing arm slide exercise. Stand with the back, back of head and hips against the wall. Bring the arms, out to the sides, up to the wall to shoulder height. Gently slide the arms up the wall keeping the head and back against the wall. Repeat 10-15 times. If you are not able to get your arms flat on the wall or slide them up, start with just trying to get into the position. This exercise can also be done lying down on your back. A stretch will be felt wherever you are most stiff. It may be between the shoulder blades, at the neck or at the base of the skull.
- Hands and knees rocking backwards exercise. Start on your hands and knees squated down; gently roll backward, keeping the head from tilting back (don’t allow the chin to come up). Hold the position for 10-20 seconds. Repeat 10 times.