Headaches: Treat the Cause Not the Pain
April 11, 2019
When you get a headache or migraine, you likely reach for your pain reliever of choice. However, you may be better off reaching for your exercise mat.
Many people experience neck and back discomfort at the onset of headache and think the headache is causing their neck pain. Surprisingly, it could well be the other way around. Tense or tight muscles often cause headaches.
Muscles in the neck and back can become tense and tight for many reasons, including:
- Overuse from daily work tasks or household activities
- Sitting at a computer for extended periods
- Driving or riding in a car for a long time
- Trauma to the head, neck, or upper body; whiplash, for example
This muscle tension, along with increased stress levels and poor posturing, can actually trigger an inflammatory event, which will not only cause neck pain, but may also refer pain to the head and face triggering a headache event.
Stave Off a Headache
If you begin to feel tension or discomfort in your neck or back, take action before this turns into a headache:
- Immediately assess your posture—whether you are sitting, standing, or lying down—to see if even subtle changes to posturing can help reduce your tension or pain.
- If you have been in a static or awkward posture for prolonged time, get up and move around for a few minutes. Change tasks even if for only briefly.
- Try lying down with adequate head support if you have been upright sitting, standing, or walking for extended periods. This can significantly reduce the gravitational forces from the weight of your head on your cervical spine (neck area).
- Consider using a cold pack or moist heat 15-20 minutes. Apply to the cervical region in a position that also provides comfort.
The Role of Physical Therapy
If your headaches become more frequent or persistent, your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist. A physical therapist can help identify a mechanical trigger that is causing your headache symptoms and then develop a personalized treatment plan. This could include restoring mobility to your joints or correcting muscle imbalances. The goal is to help you manage your own symptoms and keep you as headache-free as possible.
Jeffrey A. Bole, MSPT
Jeffrey A. Bole, MSPT, is a physical therapist with LG Health Physicians NeuroScience & Spine Associates. Bole’s areas of expertise include treatment of low back, neck and thoracic pain, and headaches.
Education: A certified strategic orthopedics practitioner, Bole earned his master’s degree in physical therapy from Wheeling Jesuit University.