Muscle Tension Headaches

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June is Migraine and Headache Awareness month.  In honor of this month, we will be discussing some headaches and how they can be treated with physical therapy!  Headaches can be very debilitating.  They not only cause pain, but can severely limit your concentration, daily functions, and even your ability to work.  Many people think there is nothing that can be done for a headache besides taking medication and “sleeping it off”.  But, there may be more you can do than you think!

Muscle Tension Headaches

Many headaches are muscle tension headaches.  They are caused by tightness in your neck muscles.  Many of the muscles in your neck attach at the base of your skull, just above your hairline.  When these muscles become tight, they shorten in length and actually cause a constant pull on the back of your head.  It is literally as if someone is yanking your head back all day long!  Most tension headaches occur in the back of the head, but can move to the top or front of the head if the pull is intense enough.  One simple way to check if your headache is a muscle tension headache is to test your neck range of motion.

Testing Neck Range of Motion:

Turn your head left, right, up, down, and bend your ears to your shoulders:

  • Does it feel tight?
  • Do you feel as if your neck will not move as far as it normally does?
  • Does one direction move less than the others?
  • Are your neck and shoulder muscles sore if you press on them? 

These are signs that the headache may e due in part to muscle tension and tightness.

Exercise Can Help!

Basic neck and upper back exercises can assist in stretching the tight muscles and decreasing their pull on the head.  Many times neck and upper back stretches will be beneficial in  decreasing headache intensity or frequency, even if muscle tension is not the main underlying cause.

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More Treatment Options

Dry needling, traction, and sub-occipital release are other physical therapy techniques that have shown great success in decreasing muscle spasms, improving movement and decreasing headache symptoms.  Ask your doctor if physical therapy would be right for you.  Many times, your doctor will also prescribe medicines for pain, inflammation, or muscle tightness in conjunction with therapy to speed along the healing process.  talk to your doctor or physical therapist with any questions you may have regarding your specific condition.  So the next time you can’t get out of bed, need to lay down, leave work or other activities early because of a a splitting headache, just remember you have more alternatives to feeling food than you think!


Blogger: Dr. Sara S. Morrison, PT, DPT, CDT, FCE, CFT, Cert DN, Cert FMT