That Tension Headache May Be a Pain in the Neck

That Tension Headache May Be a Pain in the Neck

Headache pain can be a warning sign of a more serious health problem.

This article was originally featured on the Brigham Health Hub blog.

Written by:
Thomas P. Mecke, DC, chiropractor in the Osher Clinical Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

There are numerous causes of headaches, and often, the exact mechanism cannot be identified. One very common cause of tension headaches is rooted in the neck, resulting from muscle tension and trigger points.

At the base of the skull there is a group of muscles, the suboccipital muscles, which can cause headache pain for many people. These four pairs of muscles are responsible for subtle movements between the skull and first and second vertebrae in the neck. The suboccipital muscles commonly become tense and tender due to factors such as eye strain, wearing new eyeglasses, poor ergonomics at a computer workstation, grinding the teeth, slouching posture, and trauma (such as a whiplash injury).

Pain from the suboccipital muscles commonly feels like a band wrapping around the head. Also, tension in these muscles may cause compression of a nerve that exits the base of the skull, and trigger pain that wraps over the head and above the eyes.

So, what can you do to relieve headache pain caused by the suboccipital muscles? Before reaching for a pain relief medication, try the following steps.

Eliminate the Cause of Your Tension Headache

It may be time for an eye examination. If you are straining to read, or keep tilting your head up and down to use those off-the-shelf readers, you may need a new pair of glasses.

Redesign your workstation. Simply raising your computer monitor or obtaining a document stand will reduce repeated head tilting that can strain the occipital muscles. Also, if your back is positioned to your office door, requiring you to crane your head around repeatedly, place a small mirror over your desk so that you can see out the door without turning around.

Do you slouch? Correct your rounded shoulders and forward head carriage. Consider joining yoga, Pilates, or tai chi. All of these disciplines are great forms of exercise and all can help to improve posture. Also, consider consulting a physical therapist, chiropractor, or movement therapist for exercises that are tailored to your need.

Treating Tension Headaches Without Medication

Try applying a hot pack to the base of the head for 15- to 20-minute intervals. Here’s another strategy for pain relief. Stuff two tennis balls into a sock and tie it off tightly. Now, lie on your back on the floor. Place the tennis balls under the base of your skull and allow your head to compress against them. Gently rock your head back and forth and side to side for a few minutes.

A 30-minute massage that concentrates on the neck and upper back can also be an effective way to relax your muscles and relieve your headache pain.

When a Headache Indicates Something Serious

Most headaches are painful but not dangerous. However, headache pain can be a warning sign of a more serious health problem. Visit the Brigham and Women’s Health Library to learn more about headaches, including when you should seek immediate medical care.


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