An estimated 80% of us will suffer from tension-type headaches sometime during our lives. The good news is that the right kind of headaches respond very well to Physical Therapy. During my undergrad schooling at BYU, I called these my “Monday” headaches. It seemed like every Monday, I would come home with a tension headache, and had I known then what I know now, I think that could have been avoided.
What is Causing My Headache?
There are many causes of headache symptoms. The two main headaches I see are Tension-type and Migraines.
- Tension: Usually caused by muscle tension and tightness in the muscles of the upper back and neck referring pain to the head.
- This tension can cause compression of the greater and lesser occipital nerves at the base of the skull, causing pain to travel from the back of the head and neck, to the front.
- Joints and vertebral discs in the neck can also cause referred pain and muscle tension sending pain into the head.
- Migraine: Usually a result of changes in the brain and can be genetic.
- These headaches are characterized by triggers, and sometimes and aura that precedes the headache.
- These are not as directly treatable with Physical Therapy, BUT if muscle tension is a trigger for the migraine, then we can take care of the trigger.
Tension Headache Symptoms
Here are some ways to determine whether tension is playing into your headaches.
- Tightness and pain with pushing on muscles in the neck and upper back. Specific tenderness at the base of the skull.
- Pain at the base of the skull, with pain possible in the temples and above the eyebrows.
- Headache that increases through the day and is worse with sitting or driving.
- Usually don’t have specific triggers like Migraines, but can be a trigger for migraines.
Risk Factors for Headaches
Poor Posture or Bad Ergonomics: A forward posture promotes tension in the neck and upper back. Having a desk or computer setup that encourages bad posture causes strain on the muscles all day long, and definitely can result in headaches and neck pain, as well as many other problems.
Prior Neck Injury: Car accidents, or injuries to the neck or head can cause pain referring to the head. If not dealt with appropriately, these injuries can turn into chronic tension and pain which can result in headaches.
Stress: Can cause tightness in the muscles in the neck and head. Reducing your stress level is one way to decrease muscle tension and pain, not just in your head and neck, but all over.
How to Get Relief!!!
Here are some self-treatment ideas.
- Correct and strengthen posture. Make sure your desk and car aren’t causing bad posture.
Good posture is upright with your head over your shoulders, and your shoulders over your hips. For more information on specific ergonomics, please contact me!
- Stretch the neck and upper back. Stretching the muscles multiple times each day helps to decrease tension.
Gentle stretching may be necessary due to excessive muscle tension.
- Strengthen the neck and shoulders with good postural exercise.
Focusing on strengthening the muscles on the back of the shoulders to improve balance between the front and the back and keep you upright.
- Get active! Being physically active helps tension and decreases stress.
There are many other ways we address headaches in the clinic. If your headache is still lingering, or if you want to speed up the process and really get down to your specific problem, don’t hesitate to call and make an appointment. Things like ASTYM, manual therapy, joint mobilization, and traction can help to reduce your pain quickly and effectively!!
David Butler, DPT, OCS
Utah Physical Therapy – Lehi