Apr 2017 08

Tension headache

By: Dave Wheeler

Believe it or not, it seems (according to research by (Silberstein, 1998) around 86% of women and 63% of men suffer from tension headaches.

The word "tension" in headaches doesn't refer to emotional tense-ness; it actually refers to muscle tension.

Tension headaches are caused by overly tight muscles in the back of the neck, top of the shoulders,  or even the very top of the back.

(Of course, if you're emotionally tense, then you might be keeping yourself hunched, with the muscles tense, so I guess it might amount to the same thing.)


Tense muscles

The back of the skull is called the occipital bone, and the bumpy bit at  the bottom (feel round the back of your head for  the "bump") is the occiput.

The tense muscles that can cause tension headaches generally attach here at the occiput

The specific muscles that cause tension headaches are:

  • splenius capitis (which runs from the top of the back up to the skull
  • trapezius (which runs up from the main upper back)
  • sternocleidomastoid (which runs up the front of the neck from the chest, but has attachments at the base of skull, too)

But actually, the picture's a bit more complex than that because there's another culprit which attaches very close by and has a significant impact on the positioning of skull:

  • levator scapulae (which runs underneath the trapezius and attaches up on the transverse processes - that's the "Frankenstein bolts" that stick out sideways from your spine - up the neck all the way to the skull)


The causes of tension headaches

So how do these muscles become tense?

There are a couple of main causes of tension headaches:

  1. Head-forward posture. Because most of us have our head forward (from working at desks or driving) pretty much all of the time, the muscles at the back of the neck become over-used and tense;
  2. Stress. The natural reaction to stress is to hold ourselves rigid in the upper body (this is a throwback to being ready to fight in the face of danger). Prolonged stress means prolonged shoulder tension.

Other factors can play a part too (like chronic repetitive movement of certain muscles in sport or work, or prior back or neck injuries)... but posture and stress are the main criminals.


Treating tension headaches

I need to say here, that tension headaches are only 1 class of headaches. If you have headaches that are caused by tense muscles in your neck, shoulder & upper back then the suggestions below apply.

On the other hand, if you're not certain that your headaches are caused  by muscle tension, go get checked out by a doc first.

The trite answer to the question How do I  treat tension headaches? is to say that if the 2 main causes are stress and poor posture, the way to fix the symptoms is to de-stress and stand up straight!

Of course, life ain't that easy (especially on the stress front) so here are some alternatives:

  • Use heat: a long hot bath, or a hot water bottle at the back your neck for 20 mins before you settle down for the night
  • Take up yoga,  or Tai Chi, or meditation,  or mindfulness. Or just go into your garden with a cup of tea and stare at  the shrubs and the sky every day for a bit. I know it sounds a bit new-agey, but creating a bit of "space" every day can help you to relax.
  • Have a massage. Have an Indian Head Massage, or a relaxing Spa  massage, or come to me and let me coerce your muscles into submission. It almost doesn't matter which one - whichever floats your boat.  Just get a qualified & experienced therapist to massage your neck and shoulders: it can work wonders.


As ever, if you think I can help. Give me a call.