How to get rid of a Headache (caused by muscles)


The aim of this blog post: To provide exercises on how to get rid of a headache that is caused by MUSCLE.



Note:
Target the muscles that refer pain to the area where you experience your headaches.
(Keep in mind – the indicated referral pattern of the headaches serve as a general guideline. There is a degree of variability from person to person.)

1. Sub-occipital

The Sub-occipital muscles are situated at the base of the skull.

Area of headache:

how to get rid of a headache

Signs that suggest over-activity and/or tightness:

a) Heavy head

When tight – these muscles can give the sensation of having a very heavy head and/or a squashed neck.

b) Inability to flatten back of the neck on floor

Instructions:

  • Lie down with your back on the floor.
    • Keep your knees bent.
  • Perform a bridge.
    • Push your hips towards the sky.
  • In this position, attempt to flatten the back of your neck on the floor.
  • Results: If you have a significant gap between the neck and the floor, this may indicate you have tight Sub-occipital muscles.

A. Releases

suboccipital stretch to get rid of a headache

Instructions:

  • Place a massage ball under the base of the skull.
  • Allow the weight of your head to completely relax into the ball.
  • Perform gentle rotations of your head to cover the entire muscle.
  • Continue for 2-3 minutes per side.
  • (If the release is too painful, consider using a softer massage ball.)

B. Stretches

a) Wall lean

Instructions:

  • Whilst leaning your upper back against a wall, walk your feet away from you.
  • Push your hips forwards.
  • Gently tuck your chin in.
  • Nod your chin downwards.
  • Completely flatten the back of your neck onto the wall.
  • Aim to feel a stretch at the back of your neck.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.
  • (To cover the entire muscle, perform small rotations with your head whilst keeping the neck flat on the wall. Pause on positions where there is increased stiffness.)

b) Manual stretch

Instructions:

  • Place one hand at the front of your chin and the other at the back of your head.
  • Apply a force to the front of your chin as to gently glide the chin backwards.
  • Whilst maintaining this pressure, proceed to pull your head forward/down.
  • Aim to feel a stretch at the back of your neck.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.
  • (Alternatively – you can use a resistance band instead of placing your hand at the back of your head.)

C. Strengthening exercises


Note: The Sub-occipital muscle group tends to over work for:

  • Weak deep neck flexors
  • Weak cervical extensors

By addressing these 2 factors, it can help reduce the over-activity.


Deep neck flexor strengthening

a) Chin tuck/nod

Chin nod

Instructions:

  • Lie down on your back with your knees bent.
    • (Support your head on a pillow if required.)
  • Gently perform and hold a chin tuck.
  • Nod your chin downwards.
    •  (Like when you nod your head to say ‘yes’).
  • Aim to feel a:
    • Stretch at the back of your neck and a
    • Gentle contraction of the muscles at the front of the neck.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 30 times.

b) Chin tuck/nod (With head lift)

Instructions:

  • Lie down on your back with your knees bent.
    • (Support your head on a pillow if required.)
  • Tuck your chin in.
  • Nod your chin downwards.
  • Whilst keeping your chin in the nodded position, lift your head off the ground.
    • Imagine you are gently squashing an apple between your lower jaw and throat throughout movement.
  • Aim to feel the contraction of the muscles at the front of your neck.
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds.
  • Repeat 20 times.
  • Make sure that you DO NOT let your chin jut forward
  • Note: If you find this exercise difficult, support the weight of your head with your hands.

Cervical extension strengthening

chin tuck against gravity

Instructions:

  • Lie on your stomach with your head off the edge of a bed (as above).
  • Gently tuck your chin in.
  • Whilst keeping the chin tucked in, proceed to tilt your head backwards.
  • Repeat 20 times.

D. Other factors to address

a) Forward head posture

A Forward head posture is where the position of the head is in front of the mid line of the body.

This sub-optimal head position can lead to over-activity of the Sub-occipitals.


Have a look at this post: How to fix Forward Head Posture.
(I go through every exercise that you need to do in detail.)

b) Eye strain

… Did you know that the Sub-occipitals are connected to your eyes?

You can test it out for yourself:

  • Place your finger tips on the Sub-occipital muscles.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Keep your head still.
  • Move your eyes from side to side.
  • You should be able to feel contractions in the muscle.

As a result – If you have any issues with your eye sight, it can potentially cause a strain to the Sub-occipital muscles.

Consider getting your eyes checked if you feel that they may be contributing to your headaches.

2. Upper Trapezius

The Upper Trapezius is the muscle that sits between the top of your shoulders and the base of the skull.

Area of headache:

get rid of a headache

Signs that suggest over-activity and/or tightness:

a) Increased tension

If you feel tension in the Upper Trapezius, this could be a sign of tightness and/or over-activity.

b) Uneven collar bone height

Instructions:

  • Stand relaxed in front of a mirror.
  • Locate and observe the line of your collar bones.
  • Results:
    • If the collarbone is significantly angled upwards (.. or downwards!), this may indicate that the upper trapezius is tight/over-active on that side.

A. Releases

Instructions:

  • Locate the Upper Trapezius.
  • Place a massage ball between this muscle and a wall. (see above)
  • Apply an appropriate amount of pressure into the ball.
  • Make sure to cover the entire muscle.
  • Continue for 1 minute.

B. Stretches

neck side stretch

Instructions:

  • Sit down on a chair.
  • Using the hand on the side that you want to stretch, hold the under side of the chair.
  • Lean your body and head away from this side.
  • Tilt your head to the opposite side.
  • Using your free hand, pull the side of your head further into the tilt.
  • Aim to feel a stretch on the side of your neck.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.

C. Strengthening exercises


Note: It is actually quite common to have an Upper Trapezius that is tight… and weak!
Sometimes muscles will tighten up due to being weak.

 Shrugs

Instructions:

  • Hold onto a weight on the side you want to strengthen.
  • Keep your elbows straight.
  • Shrug your shoulders towards your ears.
  • Feel the contraction of the upper trapezius.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.
  • Progression:
    • Hold onto a heavier weight.
    • Hold the contraction for longer.
    • Shrug with the arm in different positions.

D. Other factors to address

a) Rounded shoulders

rounded shoulders

Having Rounded shoulders can place an extra amount of stress on the Upper trapezius muscle.


Check out this post: How to fix Rounded shoulders.
(I go through every exercise that you need to do in detail.)

b) Stress levels

Your upper trapezius are also called your “stress muscles”.

These muscles will tend to cause your shoulders to shrug and tense up when you are stressed.

c) Scapula mechanics

For those with poor scapula mechanics, the upper trapezius will tend to hitch the shoulder when the arm is lifted.

3. Sternocleidomastoid (SCM)

The SCM muscle is located on either side of the neck.

Area of headache:

Signs that suggest over-activity/tightness:

a) Vertical alignment of the SCM

Instructions:

  • Take side profile shot of your head.
  • Locate and observe the line of SCM muscle
  • Results:
    • If the line of the SCM is vertical, it is likely that this muscle is tight.

b) Decreased head rotation

Try to look to the left and right.

If you have a limited range of motion with your rotation, this could indicate a tight SCM.

c) Increased tension

If you feel tension in the SCM, this could be a sign of tightness and/or over-activity.

A. Releases

scm release

Instructions:

  • Locate the Sternocleidomastoid.
  • With a pinch grip, feel for a prominent band of muscle on the side of the neck.
  • Do not to press too deep as you may hit other sensitive structures of the neck.
  • Gently massage the full length of the muscle.
    • Spend more time on the areas which are tender to touch.
  • Duration: 1-2 minutes

B. Stretch

Instructions:

  • Gently tuck your chin in.
  • Rotate your head towards the side you want to stretch.
  • Tilt your head to the side away from the side you want to stretch.
  • Use your hand to pull your head further into the tilt.
  • Aim to feel a stretch on the side of your neck.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.

C. Strengthening exercises

a) Rotation hold

Instructions:

  • Whilst sitting upright, place your palm on the side of your head.
  • Gently turn your head into the hand.
    • Match the force of your hand.
  • Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Repeat 5 times.
  • Alternate sides.

b) Rotation

Instructions:

  • Sit upright.
  • Gently tuck the chin in.
  • Keep the neck elongated.
  • Rotate your head towards the side:
    • To strengthen the left SCM, rotate your head towards the right. (And vice versa.)
  • Repeat 10 times.

D. Other factors to address

a) Forward head posture

In a Forward head posture, the SCM muscles are locked in a shortened position.


Have a look at this post: How to fix Forward Head Posture.
(I go through every exercise that you need to do in detail.)

b) Increase deep neck flexor strength

The SCM will tend to compensate for weak Deep neck flexors.

This can cause the muscle to become very tight and/or over-active.

Chin tuck/nod

Chin nod

Instructions:

  • Lie down on your back with your knees bent.
    • (Support your head on a pillow if required.)
  • Gently perform and hold a chin tuck.
  • Nod your chin downwards.
    •  (Like when you nod your head to say ‘yes’).
  • Aim to feel a:
    • Stretch at the back of your neck and a
    • Gentle contraction of the muscles at the front of the neck.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 30 times.

Chin tuck/nod (With head lift)

Instructions:

  • Lie down on your back with your knees bent.
    • (Support your head on a pillow if required.)
  • Tuck your chin in.
  • Nod your chin downwards.
  • Whilst keeping your chin in the nodded position, lift your head off the ground.
    • Imagine you are gently squashing an apple between your lower jaw and throat throughout movement.
  • Aim to feel the contraction of the muscles at the front of your neck.
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds.
  • Repeat 20 times.
  • Make sure that you DO NOT let your chin jut forward
  • Note: If you find this exercise difficult, support the weight of your head with your hands.

c) Poor breathing mechanics

The SCM is also a muscle that assists with breathing (esp. with increased respiration during exercise).

With poor breathing mechanics, the SCM is over active in breathing at rest.

Here is a breathing exercise:

Instructions:

  • Note: Aim to keep your neck muscles COMPLETELY relaxed throughout this breathing exercise.
  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor.
  • Tilt your pelvis backwards to help flatten your lower back onto the floor.
  • Take a deep breath in through your nose and slowly exhale ALL of the air out through your mouth.
  • As you reach the point where you have completely emptied out your lungs, notice how your lower ribs and lower back sink towards the ground.
  • Maintain this lowered rib position through this breathing exercise by gently engaging your abdominal muscles
    • “Gently draw your belly button in.”
  • Take a deep breath in.
    • Aim to expand the entire circumference of your lower chest wall.
    • Your upper chest should not be moving excessively as you breathe.
  • Breathe out all the air out of you lungs.
    • Allow the lower ribs sink to the floor as you do this.
  • Continue for 10 repetitions.

4. Jaw muscles

The Masseter and Temporalis muscles are responsible for the closing of the jaw (Temporamandibular joint).

Area of headache:

location of headache

Signs that suggest over-activity and/or tightness:

a) The 3 finger test

Instructions:

  • Open your mouth as wide as possible.
  • Place your middle 3 fingertips between your teeth. (see image)
  • Results:
    • If you can’t easily fit your 3 fingers between your teeth, you may have tight jaw muscles!
    • (Keep in mind – everyone has different sized fingers and teeth!)

b) Increased tension

If you feel tension in the jaw, this could be a sign of tightness and/or over-activity.

A. Releases

Instructions:

  • Using the base of your palm or the tips of your middle 3 fingers, apply a firm pressure starting from the bottom of the jaw bone. (Masseter)
  • Proceed to apply an upward stroke towards the sides of your head. (Temporalis)
  • Aim to drag the skin in an upwards direction as you do this.
  • Make sure that you release the entire area where these muscles are located.
  • Repeat 10 upwards strokes.

B. Stretches

Instructions:

  • Gently open your mouth.
  • Place the tips of your middle three fingers on the top of the teeth of the bottom jaw.
  • Open your mouth as wide as possible.
  • Using your fingers, pull your bottom jaw further downwards.
  • Whilst holding this position, look slightly upwards.
  • Aim to feel a stretch on the side of your jaw.
  • Hold for 20 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times

C. Joint mobility


Note: The goal with the following exercises is to keep reclaim the normal movement of the jaw.

a) Side to side

Instructions:

  • Open your mouth slightly so that there is a slight gap between your teeth.
  • Slide your bottom jaw from side to side.
  • Repeat 20 times on each side.

b) Retraction/Protraction

Instructions:

  • Open your mouth slightly so that there is a slight gap between your teeth.
  • Glide your bottom jaw forwards and backwards.
  • Repeat 20 times.

D. Strengthening exercises


Note: The muscles which are responsible for closing the jaw are usually quite strong.
However – if you feel that you have a weak jaw, it is always a good idea to strengthen it.

a) Closing the jaw

Instructions:

  • Sit up right.
  • Hold your chin in slight tucked/nodded position.
  • Keep your neck elongated towards the sky.
  • Place a rolled up towel between your teeth.
  • Bite firmly without losing your head position.
    • Use as much force as you are comfortable with.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 10 times.
  • Progression: Place a thicker object in the mouth.

b) Mouth openers

From what I’ve seen in the clinic, most people tend to be much weaker in their ability to open their jaw.

Instructions:

  • Sit upright.
  • Hold your chin in slight tucked/nodded position.
  • Open your mouth as wide as possible.
  • With your fist, apply a gentle upwards force underneath your chin.
  • Keep your mouth open against this resistance.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 10 times.

E. Other factors to address

a) Jaw clenching/Teeth grinding

If you tend to clench or grind your teeth when your sleeping/ exercising/stressed, consider getting a mouth splint.

b) Malocclusion issues

Malocclusion refers to the improper position of the teeth when the jaw is closed.

If the teeth of the upper and lower are not aligned properly, this can lead to the over use of the jaw muscles.

If you have teeth alignment issues, consider getting a review with your dentist.

c) Forward head posture

A Forward head posture can place the jaw in a position where the Masseter and Temporalis are forced to work harder than they should.


Have a look at this post: How to fix Forward Head Posture.
(I go through every exercise that you need to do in detail.)

5. Frontalis and Occipitalis

These 2 muscles are situated on the upper portion of the skull and are responsible for the movement of the forehead/eyebrows.

Area of headache:

Signs that suggest over-activity and/or tightness:

a) Increased tension around the muscle

  • Open your eyes as wide as possible.
  • Gain a sense of the amount and quality of tension in your head.
  • Relax.
  • Results:
    • If you experience a similar kind of pressure in the same general area on a regular basis, then you may have an overactive Occipitals/Frontalis muscle.

b) Forehead wrinkles

An increased amount of wrinkles on your forehead may suggest over-activity of these muscles.

(Keep in mind – this could just be normal age-related changes! )

A. Releases

a) Frontalis

Instructions:

  • Place your palm on your eye brow.
  • Apply a firm pressure and proceed to glide your hand up towards the hair line.
  • Repeat 10 upward strokes.
  • Do both sides.

b) Occipitalis

Instructions:

  • Look downwards.
  • Grasp the back of your skull with your finger tips.
  • Apply a firm pressure into the skull.
  • Drag and pull your fingers tips forwards.
  • Repeat for 10 strokes.

B. Other factors to address

a) Stress levels

The function of the eye brows is to assist with facial expression.

Since these 2 muscles are responsible for the movement of the eyebrows, they tend to be over active in certain emotional states.

(They are the muscles that cause the wrinkling of the forehead.)

Example:

  • Being constantly stressed, worried, angry or surprised

b) Excessive squinting

Squinting can lead to the over-activity of the Frontalis and Occipitals muscles.

If your eyes get tired easily whilst looking at a screen, try giving your eyes regular breaks every 30 minutes.

Also – if you know you have poor eye sight, consider visiting your optometrist.

c) Ponytail headaches

This type of headache is due to tying up your hair too tightly.

The excessive tension will tend to over sensitize the scalp and can lead to headaches.


Conclusion: How to get rid of a Headache

  • The 5 main muscles that cause headaches are:
    • Sub-Occipital
    • Upper Trapezius
    • Sternocleidomastoid
    • Masseter/Temporalis
    • Frontalis/Occipitalis
  • Depending on your presentation, you may need to address more than one muscle.
  • To make the most of the exercises, it is a good idea to address the other factors that may be contributing to the over activity of the respective muscle.

What to do next

1. Any questions?… (Leave me a comment down below.)

2. Come join me on the Facebook page. Let’s keep in touch!

3. Start doing the exercises!

About

I am a physiotherapist who has personally experienced the pain as a result of bad posture. I would like to offer you some of the solutions that I and my patients have greatly benefited from.

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