City Centre Chiropractic

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What can I do about tension headaches?


There is quite a lot that you can do yourself to get relief from tension headaches.

Relaxation — They are called “tension” headaches for a reason! Stress relief and relaxation is often the magic bullet with chronic headaches. Most tension headaches can be traced to mental and emotional overexertion and exhaustion, or sitting too long in front of a computer (or both). Obviously, rest helps a headache. But consider the less obvious: headaches should not happen regularly, and you should consider them an important communication from your body if they are. A returning headache could be your body saying to you, “Whatever you are doing, knock it off.” Consider changing your lifestyle: less stress, less computer, whatever it takes. Chronic headaches aren’t just annoying — they are proof that you are doing something your body really does not appreciate.

Heat or cool the head and neck — Heating or cooling can really help with tension headaches, but you have to be careful which one you choose. Ordinarily, spasmed or chronically tight muscles need heat — but in the case of headaches, heat can sometimes contribute to a very uncomfortable flushed or congested feeling that just makes it worse. Use your instincts. What will work in the case of a headache is whatever feels soothing. If cool washcloths feel soothing, use that. If steaming washcloths sound better to you, use those instead. It may vary from one time to the next. Sometimes alternating back and forth feels great. Experiment with temperature and location. Don’t forget to include your neck, face and jaw muscles, which are a very important part of the tension equation with all headaches.

Specific exercise (stretching, mobilizing, and strengthening)— Exercise is amazingly potent medicine for many musculoskeletal conditions, but attempts to prove a benefit for headaches specifically have been unimpressive. We do know from a really nice 2007 experiment that determined, long-term strengthening of the neck is an effective self-treatment strategy for neck pain. If so, there’s a good chance it will work for headaches as well, which is what another study showed (from the same lab, three years later). They also showed that stretching alone was less effective than more dynamic and vigorous exercises for strength and endurance.

I recommend a long-term, patient exercise program, targetting not just the neck muscles but also the jaw muscles because of their frequent involvement in headaches. Skip ordinary stretching (unless you just enjoy it), and begin with lots of pain-free range of motion and mobilizations. Progress to endurance exercises, and then finally strength training. Although you will probably need to be disciplined and patient, strength training is remarkably efficient.

General exercise is a no-brainer treatment option for all stubborn painful problems, but it’s probably extra worthwhile for tension headaches because (1) it’s so good at improving mood and sleep, both of which are probably particularly important factors in most cases of chronic tension headaches; and (2) if you have a little migraine mixed in with your tension headaches, as many probably do, then fitness is even more relevant, in theory.

Bioenergetic breathing exercises — Headaches are often involve psychological factors, and so vigorous breathing exercises — an easy way of blowing off steam and shifting mental state — tend to be helpful for headaches. Note that breathing for headaches can be as challenging as it is rewarding: they may feel worse before they get better, but that is part of the process.

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