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  • Writer's pictureMurray Kovesy

5 Stretches to Combat Tension Headaches - Take Tension Headaches Head On

Updated: Jan 9, 2020

Panadol Isn’t the Only Option for Headaches.

Although doctors are quick to prescribe pain killers for headaches, they are not effective at treating the cause often masking the underlying issue. We need to seek an alternative and natural solution to beat tension headaches at its origin. Nothing ruins a weekend away or disrupts a busy day at work like a pounding headache. Unfortunately, the phenomenon is quite common. Just about everyone experiences headaches at some point in their life. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as many as 1 in 20 adults has a headache every day.

But what exactly is a headache?

Loosely defined, a headache is any kind of pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck and is often associated with muscle tightness in these areas. Some headaches can also include pain in the face or jaw. There are many types of headaches all varying in intensity, location, duration, and origin.

Taking on Tension Headaches.

Tension headaches are by far the most common form of headache and most likely the one you’ll experience next. Tension headaches are caused by largely muscular tension and stress. Symptoms of the condition often feel like a dull pressure or pounding sensation in or around the skull, temples, behind the eyes and sometimes jaw pain. The causes include muscle tension, fatigue, stress but really, it’s a combination of all three factors. Finding out what your triggers are is the key to beating headaches.

How to Prevent Tension Headaches.

Tension headaches are exacerbated by poor posture. That’s often why your headache keeps wanting to come back. Fix your posture and you are on your way to a pain free head. There are many muscles in the head and neck that contribute to proper alignment and head position throughout the day. Poor posture over a prolonged time leads to alignment issues and weakness of deep stabilising muscles in the neck and shoulders. This weakness leads to a forward head position and rounded shoulders. When there is incorrect length tension-relationships in the muscles in the shoulders or neck, it causes tight and fatigued muscles forming trigger points and ultimately referring headache pain.

To correct this, we need to start by releasing and lengthening the soft tissue. Then progress to strengthening to improve alignment and reduce the strain on these muscles. Instead of grabbing the Panadol straight away, think why the headache is happening. Don’t shut down when it comes on, be proactive and combat your headache with these 5 stretches. A foam roller is needed with some of the stretches provided. If you don't have a foam roller yet check out the online store here

5 Stretches to Combat Tension Headaches

Upper Trapezius Stretch

The upper trapezius is on the top of your shoulders. If you grab and pinch it now you will actually feel how tight these muscles are and maybe some trigger points. As a Myotherapist it’s rare to find this muscle loose on anyone. A lot of people struggle with trigger points in the upper trapezius which contribute to headaches. The muscle attaches from the top of the scapulae, to part of the clavicle and then to the base of the skull. The muscle’s function is to rotate and stabilise the shoulder blade while also helping to extend the neck.

Modern day use of technology and work environments are the main cause here. Prolonged and extensive computer and phone use causes the upper traps to tighten causing tension and trigger points along the muscle. To stretch the upper trapezius bring one ear down to your shoulder and gently apply overpressure to the head with the hand. Hold up to 30 seconds. Repeat on other side. Make sure you keep upright posture throughout keeping your eyes forward.

Levator Scapulae Stretch

The levator scapulae is another source of neck and shoulder pain, restriction and headaches. This is the muscle you often feel making those crunching noises around the back of the shoulder.

It travels from the top border of the scapulae up to the cervical spine. Because of the levator scapulae’s attachment points, it elevates the scapulae. This is why the levator scapulae is tight on people who are stressed and tense their shoulders during the day. The muscle also helps to rotate the shoulder blade downward and rotate the neck.

To lengthen and stretch the levator scapulae muscle, gently tilt the head forward and downward at about a 45-degree angle. To remember this think of it as if your trying to smell your armpit. Gentling pull down your head until you start to feel a stretch at the top of the shoulder and travelling up the neck. Hold with gentle overpressure for up to 30 seconds. Repeat on each side.

Pec Stretch

The pectoralis major and pectoralis minor are the major postural contributors to rounded shoulders, forward head position and weak scapular and neck muscles. The pectoralis muscle is key to unlocking poor posture long term and not just a quick fix. A tight pec minor muscle tips the shoulder blades forward into a position that limits optimal function of the shoulder and strains muscles in the upper neck and back.

To stretch the pecs, try lying down on a foam roller down the spine. With your arms out to the side stretch out making the letter “T”. Hold for 30 seconds, breathing slow and deeply into the stretch. Then bring elbows down and bend arms at the elbow to make a “W” with your arms. Hold this position without forcing your hands to the floor. Let gravity open up the chest.

Thoracic Extension Stretch

We spend so much of our day rounded forward, curving the neck and shoulders into a forward C-shape as we stare down at computers and phones. This thoracic extension stretch is a great way to open up the chest, reversing the tensions that form when we are positioned in one way for too long. Using a foam roller positioned perpendicular to your torso, gently arch the upper back backwards over the foam roller. You can let your arms hang down and leg gravity pull you back or you can support your head with your hands.

Suboccipital Stretch and Release

One of the most common sites for muscle tension contributing to headaches is in the suboccipital muscles. That pain right up under the back of your skull are these nasty muscles. As they attach at the base of the skull they are essentially holding your head up on your spine all day. You can now see why looking down at your computer and phone causes these muscle to fatigue and cause pain. These muscles contribute to stabilising and moving the head. It often feels very dull and tender when they are tight and when the head is not optimally aligned over the neck. By palpating and massaging these pressure spots, you can promote blood flow and help release tension felt in the head. Try performing a chin tuck to stretch these muscles, or place a foam roller at the base of your neck and gently roll over this area to self-release on your own.

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