Ever noticed that your headaches happen more often when your neck and shoulder muscles are tight? You're not crazy, it's a real thing - tension headaches.
Dr. Cristina Wohlgehagen, Headache Specialist and Founder of the International Headache Center, notes that tension-type headache (TTH) affects anywhere from 38-78% of the population. Though the exact mechanism of tension headaches is not known, this type of headache is most likely attributed to a peripheral mechanism - muscles and nerves causing the brain to feel head pain or headache.
Tiny Neck Muscles Can Create Big Headaches
Tension headaches can be caused by tightness and/or misalignment in your suboccipital muscles (the ones at the base of your skull) leading to poor posture in your neck...and a myriad of other things. Your body tries to work in harmony, so if one set of muscles starts to fatigue, other muscles will step in to lighten the load. This is what happens when the suboccipitals are tensed consistently over time:
- Your sternocleidomastoid (SCM) and scalene muscles contract to hold your head forward and down
- The first head of your trapezius muscle is lengthened to help the SCM maintain the forward posture of your neck
- The second head of your trapezius contracts slightly drawing your shoulder (acromion process) up
- Your pectoralis muscles start contracting to round your shoulders forward
The final product is a head jutted forward with shoulders lifted & rounded. Not the ideal look for us, but honestly its pretty common in today's forward facing, computer loving world. This doesn't happen exactly the same in every person. However, any consistent misalignment in the body starts a vicious cycle to try to maintain the unnatural posture. As your body wears down, it'll let you know how unhappy it is with alerts - sometimes in the form of a headache.
How Yoga Can Help Prevent Tension Headaches
With consistency and proper alignment, yoga poses can start relaxing your tight muscles and allow your body to move towards better posture. Below are 3 asanas (poses) that will gently stretch the muscles of your neck and release your pectoralis muscles.
Neck Rolls & Stretch Combo (stretches neck muscles)
***Not for people diagnosed with spontaneous intracranial hypotension SIH and/or with neck injuries/issues without personal guidance from a yoga instructor and/or physician
- Start in a comfortable seated position. Close your eyes and breathe.
- Gently release your chin to your chest. Hold and breathe.
- Slowly roll your head towards your right, moving quarter by quarter, until your right ear is over your right shoulder. Hold and breathe.
- Keep your right ear over your right shoulder. Place your left fingertips on the top of your left shoulder. Reach your right hand over your head and place your right fingertips on the top of your left ear (see picture below). Inhale, sit up tall. Exhale, gently suggest your right ear closer to your shoulder as you feel your left shoulder lowering. Do this 3 times. Release your hands down.
- Gently roll your head towards the back, reaching your chin towards the ceiling. Hold and breathe.
- Slowly roll your head towards your left, moving quarter by quarter, until your left ear is over your left shoulder. Hold and breathe.
- Keep your left ear over your left shoulder. Place your right fingertips on the top of your right shoulder. Reach your left hand over your head and place your left fingertips on the top of your right ear. Inhale, sit up tall. Exhale, gently suggest your ear closer to your shoulder as you feel your right shoulder lowering. Do this 3 times. Release your hands down.
- Slowly roll your chin back to chest.
- Gently draw your head back to neutral. Inhale, exhale. Open your eyes.
Baby Cobra Hold (strengthens neck muscles)
***Not for people diagnosed with spontaneous intracranial hypotension SIH and/or neck, back injuries/issues without personal guidance from a yoga instructor and/or physician
- Lay face down on your mat with your hands under your shoulders, elbows pointing up.
- Squeeze your inner thighs towards each other.
- Press your pubic bone and tops of toes into the ground.
- Keep your neck neutral. Slowly begin reaching your chest forward and slightly lifting your chest off the ground.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Make sure you're rolling the tops of your shoulders back and down. Little to no weight in your hands.
- Hold for 3 breath cycles. Release. Repeat 2-3 times.
Supported Fish (stretches muscles in chest that attach to shoulder)
***Not for people diagnosed with spontaneous intracranial hypotension SIH and/or with neck, back, and/or shoulder injuries/issues without personal guidance from a yoga instructor and/or physician
- Sit on the floor with legs extended. Place a bolster or thick pillow lengthwise behind you touching your glutes so when you lay down your entire spine will be supported.
- Slowly lower your spine onto your bolster or pillow. You should be fully supported from your low back to your head.
- Extend your arms out to the side on the ground at shoulder height. If your pectoralis muscles are tight, you will feel a stretch across the front of your chest.
- If having your legs extended does not feel good on your low back, you can also cross them, touch the soles of your feet with wide open knees (Supta Baddha Konasana), or bend your knees with your feet on the ground.
- Close your eyes and breathe slow & steady for 5-8 breath cycles.
- When you're finished, slowly sit up or roll off to one side gently.
Choose one of these to practice every day for the next 7 days. Commit to learning about your body and what works for you. At the end of the week, notice if you felt any changes with regards to your headaches by maintaining a headache diary.
Dr. Wohlgehagen recommends keeping with your new yoga practice at least a few times per week (if you're feeling good), as it often takes 6-12 weeks for lifestyle modifications to have maximal effect.
Adding Yoga to Your Lifestyle
There's not one special pose that works for everyone and you can't just do yoga one time to make your headaches go away. However, there are specific techniques that have better results than others based on my experience managing my own headaches and working with headache patients. In my Yoga for Headaches system, I explain breath control, meditation, and poses with a package of 5 videos specifically geared towards headache sufferers. Using these regularly helps establish a foundation of yoga as you learn what works for your body - all without leaving home. No stress about driving to a studio or cancelling your session when a headache strikes. The classes are there for you when you need them. When you're ready, try adding yoga into your daily life and notice what makes a positive difference in your headache rhythm.
Hey! I'm Tiffany Lord, Yoga for Headaches guru and Founder of Love & Asana. My passion is helping people just like you learn easy ways to integrate yoga into your daily life to manage headaches and stress. Want help adding yoga to your lifestyle? Schedule a private consultation and let's create a special plan just for you!
Dr. Cristina Wohlgehagen, MD – kindly referred to as Dr. Cris by patients – is a neurologist who is fellowship trained in headache medicine and founder of International Headache Center. Dr. Cris is fascinated by headache neurology and believes in a holistic approach to medicine. She is dedicated to “treating the whole person, not just the headache.” By practicing this philosophy, she strives to provide hope for those suffering with headache and facial pain. Dr. Cris is building a membership based headache center where patients have access via traditional and virtual encounters to exceptional medical care, support groups, and ancillary services such as nutrition and yoga.