How Does Muscle Tension Contribute to Chronic Headaches?
A frequent contributing factor in headaches is muscle tension. This is because there are numerous muscles in the face, jaws, cheeks, visual system, scalp, temples, neck and shoulders. All of these muscles connect or cross talk with other muscles through nerves, muscle and connective tissue, blood supply, physiology, and energy channels. When overly tightened, in spasm, or chronically tense, head-facial-neck and shoulder pain can result. Referral pain can occur when tight, irritated muscles in one area cause pain felt in another muscle region. For example, a headache felt in the forehead can be caused by muscle tension in the jaws or shoulders.
Muscle tension contributes to headache pain by constricting blood flow and decreasing oxygen and nutrients to the area, lactic acid (byproduct of muscle activity) and toxin build-up, nerve irritation, inflammation and irritated tissue triggering pain receptors, muscle hyperactivity and fatigue, blockage of energy and healing factors, and knots and trigger points, as some of the more common reasons.
Numerous factors can irritate, challenge, or cause muscle bracing of these muscles. The most common include trauma (e.g., neck whiplash or head injury), right-left body imbalances of muscle activity, mental trauma, stress and anxiety, feeling overworked or overwhelmed, withheld anger, jaw over-usage (e.g., teeth clenching, excessive gum chewing), frequent squinting, poor posture and body care, cranial–facial muscle over use, poor diet, caffeine or stimulants, lack of sleep, and sitting all day in job. Additional problems can include injuries, assaults, and congenital problems of the body’s structure.
There are numerous muscles most of us are unaware of (i.e., scalp and temple muscles), that can become chronically uptight, forced into a strong and painful spasm, or held in a moderate cycle of both tension and spasm. Over time, headache pain can result, and become a chronic problem.
Different factors can create different types of headaches. For example, chronic muscle fatigue can feel like a dull headache; whereas, a quick neck spasm could feel like a screaming headache. Migraine headaches often present a pulsating pain, often on one side of head. Many people find rubbing the temples helps relieve pain in the forehead, that is, if the temple muscles are the loci of muscle tension.
How can we reverse a chronic headache pattern when we are certain that muscle tension is the primary influence?
1. Master your muscle system: Learn of all of the cranial-facial, neck and shoulder muscles (see anatomy pictures) and be more self-aware of your own muscles and how they act, especially the factors that trigger your headaches.
2. Biofeedback Training: Observe your muscle activity in real time on computer and actively use your body’s own information as a coach on how to relax those muscles.
3. Self-Regulation Training: Along with biofeedback training, you will learn valuable self-regulation skills to quiet the muscles, lower stress and restore balance to the affected systems. Counseling can help identify and resolve issues that lead to headache-related stress.
4. Be aware of how you handle stress and feelings: Especially the mental aspects of the pain syndrome. Find a strategy to release negative feelings when they reach awareness (e.g., walk in woods, talk w/ friend).
5. Study correct body posture and ergonomics: (i.e., how to sit, stand, function properly at your workplace and in daily life).
6. Remember to breathe: relax the whole torso and breathe properly.
7. Commit to exercise and stretching: Yoga incorporates principles that help heal muscles, as does a sensible exercise program practiced regularly.
8. Get a massage or acupuncture treatment: These can be very healing for the muscles.
9. Get a health and medical check-up literally from the neck – up: If needed, a thourough medical or orthopedic evaluation, physical therapy or chiropractic care can help heal deeper problems at the structural or bio-mechanical level.
10. Don’t stop learning about yourself and the nature of your headaches. Don’t simply accept that you have headaches. Explore the cause(s) and seek proper treatment. There is a great deal of healing potential when you understand your body and mind, and get to the root cause of your headaches.
Return to Areas of Clinical Practice for Children and Adults