Headaches: What a Pain in the Neck!

The tension in your neck may be causing your headaches. How to break the cycle.

Feb. 18, 2008 — -- It's 2 a.m. and you're waking up in pain. You reach to your neck, and you can't move your head.

Was it the way you slept last night? Or did you twist the wrong way when reaching into the back seat while driving? Perhaps it's the way you hold your phone at work?

The fact is that even the simplest movements can cause short periods of neck pain. Yet some of us may actually be experiencing chronic neck pain.

Simple movements can lead to muscle tightness, which can take time to show symptoms, and muscle strain, which usually happens as an acute occurrence.

How Neck Pain Can Go to Your Head

Headaches that stem from neck pain are found mostly in individuals who have tightness in the posterior neck muscles, which are at the back of the neck. This is mainly brought about by a forward-headed body posture and rounded back — the very posture you may be assuming as you read this article!

This causes the cervical spine (the top seven vertebrae in the spinal column) to be positioned into extension. This position causes the neck flexors (the muscles in front of your neck) to lengthen and the muscles in the back of your neck to shorten.

This forced position puts a strain on the occipital nerve, which is a sensory and motor nerve that runs through these now-shortened muscles. In many cases, this can cause headaches.

That's not to say that all headaches generated this way are the same. One form of headache that finds its origins in the neck muscles is the occipital headache, in which muscles in the neck put pressure on specific nerves, resulting in a migraine-type experience.

Tension headaches, on the other hand, are thought by many to be a result of general muscle tension in the head and are brought about by the faulty posture of the head, neck and upper posterior neck muscles.

Muscle Stretching for Pain Relief

In both cases, stretching the tight muscles along the back of your neck, as well as strengthening the muscles at the front of the neck and improving body posture in general, can help to release this pain.

Stretching the posterior neck muscles should be done carefully, by pulling your chin down and in. This should be done standing, sitting or lying on your back. Think about trying to flatten your cervical spine.

One word of caution: Avoid doing this on your stomach, as you will strengthen the neck musculature again and therefore shorten these muscles, which is what we're trying to avoid.

Correcting a forward-headed body posture can start as simply as strengthening the abdominal region. Keep in mind that if you are dealing with a forward-headed body posture, you are also dealing with forward-rounded shoulders and increased curvature of the spine. Hence, the short muscle groups need to be stretched and the elongated muscle groups need to be strengthened — and subsequently shortened.

Therefore, the treatment of neck pain might not start with the neck, but rather with the strengthening of the abdominal region to increase stability in the pelvic region and lower back. It also stands to reason that stretching the muscles of your chest and strengthening the muscles of the middle back could help.

Another cause can be tightness along one side of the neck, caused by holding a telephone receiver between your shoulder and head. Or perhaps your muscle tightness comes from looking at a monitor that is positioned on a wall to your side — a situation that might be common for Wall-Streeters who track numbers throughout the day.

In any event, when the shoulder is elevated and the head is tilted, the result is a short upper trapezius (the muscle that extends from your shoulder to your neck) and a weak latissimus dorsi (the muscle that extends down the side of your back). The two are opposing muscle groups. The upper trapezius lifts your shoulders to your ears, while your latissimus dorsi depresses the shoulder and shoulder girdle directly downward.

The treatment in these cases would be to strengthen the latissimus dorsi and to stretch the trapezius on the side where tightness is experienced.

So before you start taking any headache medicine for chronic neck pain, you might want to analyze your body posture first. Finding tension in your neck or limited range of motion in your cervical spine might be the cause, and correcting it might be the simple solutions for at least some of your headaches and neck pains.

Stefan Aschan is a leading expert on lifestyle, health and fitness, who has helped more then 30,000 people get fit through advice on nutrition, fitness and lifestyle changes. To listen to Stefan's free one-hour seminar, "How to have ten times more success, stay on top of your goals, and accomplish the change of body and appearance," visit http://www.strength123.com