If you think headache pain only affects your head, think again. It is extremely common for people with headaches to have muscle tensionin their shoulders, neck, and head that is three or more times the normal level. By gently stretching these tightened muscles, blood and oxygen can enter the tissue, thereby bringing the muscles back to normal tension.
Although we turn our heads hundreds of times each day, we often use the wrong muscles for the job. You should be using the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles, but many people instead use the trapezius muscles—muscles that are incredibly overworked already. We use them to shoulder our stress, tense them when we are breathing incorrectly and mistakenly engage them to turn the head. It is not surprising we carry so much excess tension there.
Releasing this extra tension in your neck is a critical part of taking control of your headaches. These simple exercises will help you relax your neck and start using the correct muscles—thereby reducing your headache risk.
There are a few things to remember as you do these exercises. First, read the directions completely before you get started. Next, remember to breathe deeply the entire time you practice the movements. Finally, don’t overdo it.
With all of these exercises, the goal is to find the place where you feel a good stretch and release of muscle tension—but are not straining. You should never feel pain during or after any of these exercises. Remember, it is better to be gentle until you know where your limits are. If you have neck injuries, consult with your physician or a physical therapist before starting any physical activity.
1. Side stretch: Sit comfortably in a chair with your spine straight and tall. Imagine strings lifting upward from the top of your head and the center of your chest. Breathe, relax and let the shoulders drop as you feel the heaviness in them. Slowly turn your head as you inhale, and look over your right shoulder as far as you comfortablycan. Feel the stretch in the neck, and hold that position for a moment. With the exhalation, move your head back to center. Then, inhale and turn your head to look over your left shoulder as far as you comfortably can. Pause and, with the exhalation, release the head back to center. Move slowly and with the breath as you turn your head from right to left two more times in each direction.
As you are turning your head, picture the SCM muscles doing the job rather than the trapezius muscles. Imagine the shoulder muscles being very heavy and relaxed, as if they could not possibly be used to turn the head. If you feel the trapezius muscle working as you turn, try to disengage it by not looking as far over your shoulder.
2. Ear-to-shoulder stretch: Sitting straight and tall, imagine that your shoulders are heavy and relaxed. At the same time, visualize little lead weights on the tips of your elbows. Let the right ear drop toward the right shoulder. Breathe deeply as you feel the stretch, and let the left shoulder drop and be heavy. Picture blood and oxygen flowing to the muscles being stretched. Bring the head slowly back to center. Next, let the left ear drop toward the left shoulder, imagining that the right shoulder is heavy and relaxed. Feel the stretch on the right side of the neck. Bring the head back to center, and repeat two more times on each side.
As you add these stretches to your daily routine, you will start releasing your neck tension. If you augment the stretches by doing breathing exercises, relaxing your body and calming your mind, you may be well on your way to controlling your headaches.
Kelsie Kenefick, MPS, BCB, LMHC, is the author of the award-winning book Migraines Be Gone and the founder of Naturally Pain Free. She has created a home program that helps headache sufferers learn how to control their headaches. Learn more at www.naturallypainfree.com.