Tension headaches are sometimes called “muscle contraction headaches.” You get stressed, your muscles get tight, and suddenly, you've got a headache.
Even if it's not crunch time, just day-to-day life working at a desk and staring at screens can cause chronic stiffness and tightness in the head, neck, and shoulders. So people with that lifestyle often experience (very avoidable) tension headaches.
You don’t always have the opportunity to run out and get a massage to relieve that muscle tightness when a headache strikes, so I want to share some really amazing stretches you can do at home. These stretches target the same muscles groups I would target if I was giving you a massage.
As a bonus, these stretches are also nice for neck and shoulder pain in general.
You can do these 5 stretches without leaving your desk, so give it a try as you read!
1. Look Over Your Shoulder
Sit up straight. Keeping your torso and shoulders locked in place, turn your head to look over one shoulder as far as you can. Then rotate your head back to neutral, without rushing it, and look over your opposite shoulder. Repeat 5 times.
This is a great warm-up for all of the muscles and joints that rotate your neck, and provides a gentle stretch while improving circulation. Using your full range of motion like this is a great way to relieve shoulder and neck pain over time.
Once you’ve warmed up, you can take this stretch farther by placing a hand on your cheek and pushing your head slightly farther into the rotation, but be very gentle. Your neck is delicate, and this stretch doesn’t need to be super intense to be effective.
2. Tuck Your Chin
Do your headaches ever start at the base of your skull (where your head meets your neck) and crawl up the head from there?
The muscles at the base of the skull are a MAJOR culprit for tension headache pain. These muscles are fascially connected to the meninges of the brain (AKA, this muscle’s connective tissue is directly connected to the brain’s connective tissue).
When we slouch at our desk and push our head forward to stare at the screen, these muscles get really tight.
To stretch them, simply tuck your chin towards your chest.
You can increase the stretch by placing a hand on your chin and pressing it inwards, and/or placing a hand on the back of your head and gently tipping your head downwards. Be gentle!
3. Tuck Your Chin & Rotate
Here's a satisfying stretch for the sides of the neck, particularly the upper neck.
Begin sitting up straight with your chin tucked towards your chest. Now, maintaining your chin tuck (this is key!), rotate your head so your chin draws an arc up and towards the ceiling. Stop when you feel a nice stretch, and rotate your head back. Repeat 3-5 times on each side.
You can enhance the stretch by using a hand on top of your head to pull your head slightly farther to the side. The most important part for doing this stretch successfully is not to really twist your head but simply to maintain the chin tuck. As always, be gentle!
4. Stretch the Jaw
A tight jaw triggers a tight neck and head. If you clench your jaw or grind your teeth when you're stressed, frequent stretching of the jaw muscles will be so helpful for the tension level of your entire upper body.
To loosen your jaw muscles, shift your jaw as far as it can comfortably go forwards, backwards, left, and right. Repeat for a few reps in each direction. For many of us, our jaw is not perfectly aligned and we’ll notice that it's easier to shift to one side than the other.
Then, yawn real big and really stretch those muscles out!
As a bonus, yawning helps produce tears to moisturize your eyes and reduce eye strain, which is another common factor that aggravates tension headaches.
5. Look Around (Eyes Only)
Imagine if you never moved your shoulder - it'd get stiff and sore, right? The same thing happens with your eyes!
When we only stare straight ahead at our screens, our eye muscles get tense and inflexible. We're not using the full range of motion.
So, to reduce soreness and tension in your eye muscles, try this: Imagine a figure-8 shape and trace it with your eyes (no need to rush), without moving your head.
The goal is to explore your eye’s full range of motion. So when you look at the leftmost point of the 8, it should be about as far left as you can comfortably look. Same for when you look up, down, right, etc.
Trace the 8 a couple times in both directions, and then let your eyes rest.
Keep in mind that frequent, gentle stretching will be much more helpful for your tightness and tension headaches than one bout of intense and aggravating stretches.
Take a break, now that you've done these stretches once, and then try them again tomorrow.
I mentioned I would massage these muscles if you were able to come in for an appointment... and yes, that includes the muscles of the eye! We can even massage inside the mouth (wearing gloves) to really release the jaw muscles. These advanced massage techniques are gentle and incredibly effective at creating relief from tension headaches.
How do you feel after practicing those 6 exercises? Was one particularly helpful?
For a few more ideas on how to manage your chronic headache pain, check out this post. To book an appointment with me at my Seattle massage practice, click here.