The Real Reason You Have a Headache

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When a headache hits, it's an understandable reaction to want to pop a few aspirin and close your eyes in a dark room until it goes away. The wait-it-out approach is frustrating, especially when those headaches are recurring and interfere with your daily activities. Whether you get headaches often or occasionally, however, there are exercises you can take on that are often far more effective and long-lasting than medicine to alleviate symptoms.

There are hundreds of different types of headaches, and I can't address them all here (in other words, this article is not for you migraine sufferers; go see a doctor). The vast majority of headaches I treat, however, are cervicogenic, meaning the pain is felt in the head but originates from the cervical spine. The second most common type of headache I see comes from compression of the trigeminal nerve, which innervates the face and muscles you use during chewing. Here's how to tackle these two.

Cervicogenic Headaches: The Desk Worker's Malady
One of the most common positional faults I see is the forward head posture. From writing to texting to reading, we are putting undue stress on our neck, compressing the greater occipital nerve. Here's what happens: Push your head forward as far as possible. If you feel the front of your neck, your anterior neck muscles will be stretched. Then feel the back of your neck, those muscles too are tight and working hard to keep your chin level. We are chronically stuck in this position while we stare at our computers and phones. While all the muscles in the neck are working hard, the suboccipitals (the little muscles on the back of your neck) and your upper trapezius will clamp down on the greater occipital nerve, which refers pain over the back and side of the head and then the eye. Imagine that overly tight muscle squeezing down on that nerve. 

Here's how to release the tension you bring on at work in front of a computer or staring at a phone all day.

Upper Trap/Levator Scap Release

  • Stand with your shoulder under a bar or with a lacrosse ball placed half way between the neck and edge of the shoulder on the restricted side.
  • Upper Trap: Move left and right until you find a tender area.
  • Next, shrug your shoulder up and down for 45 seconds or until the tension resolves.
  • Levator Scap: Look down and toward the armpit opposite the bar and back up.
  • Repeat for 45 seconds or until the tension resolves.

SCM

  • First, locate your SCM by turning your head to one side. The muscle will protrude for your neck.
  • Follow the muscle up until you are under your ear and across from your jaw.
  • Place your fingers in that spot and hold.
  • Turn your head and look to the opposite side and then return to center. Continue until you feel the muscle release.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Scalene Release

  • Locate your lateral scalene by placing your fingers right above your collarbone. There you should feel the muscle attachment of the scalene.
  • Hold down the muscle and side bend your head to the opposite side. You can also turn your head to look toward the opposite shoulder and then return to center.
  • Do this combination of movements until you feel the muscle release.
  • Repeat on the opposite side.

Suboccipital Release

  • Place two balls under the back of your neck and the base of your head.
  • Perform a chin tuck and then return to neutral while in this position.
  • Repeat until you feel the muscle begin to release. Eventually you can progress to using golf balls for this release.

 

Tension Headaches from a Tight Jaw
The other type of headache I see often are tension headaches. While these can be caused by a few different things, I want to focus on the jaw, as that is the place you can affect the most change in your soft tissue. Tight jaws can be caused from teeth grinding, clenching your jaw too much, and stress. The good news is that it is very treatable. A few good releases on the muscles in and around your jaw can relieve pressure on the branch of the trigeminal nerve that passes through.

Here's how to release the stress and tension that ends up in your jaw and leaves your head aching.

Mandibular Release

  • Find the angle of the mandible (the jaw) near your ear.
  • Curl your fingers slightly under the jaw, open and close your mouth until tension resolves.
  • Repeat on another area that feels tight.

Masseter Release

  • Find the masseter below your cheekbones near where your jaw and cheekbones meet.
  • Apply firm pressure with your fingertips.
  • Open and close your mouth until tension resolves.

Temporalis Release

  • Press your fingertips into the sides of the head about an inch above your ears. You can do both sides at the same time.
  • Open and close your mouth until tension resolves.

David Reavy, founder of Chicago-based React Physical Therapy, is the creator of the Reavy Method, a whole body approach to physical therapy and exercise. Reavy works with numerous pro athletes from the NFL, NBA, MLS, and the WNBA.