Tension Headache – Stress and Duress

Stress affects the body in funny ways.  As we discussed last week, stress can lead to worsening of or even create pain.  The type of pain can very from person to person, but a common version of stress-induced pain are headaches.  A tension headache, or stress-related headache, is fairly well understood. Many of us have had one or two in our lifetime.  

When we get stressed, the muscles in our body can tense up on us.  This leads to a feeling of stiffness, and can lead to pain. With a tension headache, the muscles at the base of the skull tense up, and these muscles tend to refer pain vaguely around our head.  This kind of headache is usually a constant pain, is not described as throbbing, and can worsen with movements of the head/neck. Tension headaches can be tricky to deal with.

Here are a few tips for dealing with a Tension Headache:  

  • Stretching – The muscles we’re talking about collectively help us extend our head, meaning they help us look up, but only a tiny amount.  These muscles are located at the base of the skull towards on the backside of the neck, which is where a lot of people tend to feel their headache.  If you slump down and let your head relax forward while still looking directly in front of you, these muscles are now shortened. Under the right circumstances, these muscles can tense up and contribute to tension headaches.  To stretch them out, chin tucks are a great option.  The most important thing with chin tucks is to keep your chin down.  Try 5-10 reps for 3-5 second holds every 1-2 hours.  
  • Soft tissue massage – If you’ve got a couple tennis balls laying around, you’re in luck!  By applying some gentle pressure to the muscles at the base of the skull, you can generally work out a lot of the pain associated with tension headaches in just a few minutes.  Here is a picture and description of what it looks like.  1-2 minutes usually does the trick, and can be done 1-2 times a day.  The picture shows someone lying down, but chin tucks can also be performed sitting up or standing.  
  • Strengthen the neck and shoulders – The shoulder blades and neck are directly connected to each other with many muscles.  Making these muscles stronger can help keep your headache away. A series of exercises you can try out is called TYI’s, named for the shape your body makes with your torso and arms.  Ironically, you’ll want to start with the “A” (shown here) before moving on.  The “T” (shown here) is slightly harder, the “Y” (shown here) is harder still, and the “I” (shown here) is the hardest.  For each exercise, you should be able to perform 15 reps with a 2 second hold for 2-4 sets.  Add weight if you need the extra challenge, but start light (1-2#). These are deceptively challenging.  
  • Identify the source of your stress – Stress plays a big part in tension headaches.  If you can identify specific times, activities, or events that you tend to get headaches, that can clue you in.  If you can’t figure it out yourself, get help! Counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists can help you identify those stressful triggers and how to cope with them.  

Tension headaches are incredibly common, but in most cases they can be managed in simple ways. Moving and strengthening the muscles around the neck can solve many of those problems.  Figuring out what stressors are triggering your headache can go a long way in avoiding or managing those stressors. If you’re having trouble with headaches, see a physical therapist to help get yourself back to normal.  

Got questions?  Feel limited in what you’re able to do?  The staff at Limitless Physical Therapy in Eugene, OR can show you how to discover your future without limits.  Follow us on Facebook!

***The above information, including text, images, and all other materials, is provided for educational purposes only, and not as a replacement or supplement to professional medical advice.  Please contact a certified healthcare professional or your primary physician for any personal concerns.

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