Tension Headaches: Is Your Posture to Blame?


Tension headaches are one of the most common complaints of head pain. Symptoms typically occur gradually without a traumatic onset. Tension headaches can often be felt in the base of the skull and may refer pain into the forehead, behind the eyes, and temporal region of the head. Nausea, vomiting, and vision changes are less common with tension headaches; however, these symptoms may also be present if the headache is exacerbated.


Tension headaches are a result of excessive compression on the nerves in the back of the head and neck, typically from tight muscle groups known as the suboccipitals. A variety of nerves responsible for innervating the skin and the muscles exit the spine in between these muscles. When muscle tension is at an all-time high, these nerves will begin to send pain signals to the brain. Secondarily, the muscles themselves can develop “knots” or trigger points that are also responsible for creating additional local pain.

lateral view of suboccipitals

lateral view of suboccipitals

posterior view of suboccipitals

posterior view of suboccipitals


How Does Posture Lead to Tight Muscles?


Upper Crossed Syndrome

Sitting or standing with rounded shoulders in a slumped position causes the head to move forward from the spine. This position is commonly referred to as “Upper Crossed Syndrome”. This results in a compressed upper cervical spine, with short and tight muscles being created in the cervical extensors as well as anterior shoulder girdle and chest. Respectively, the opposing muscle groups such as the deep neck flexors and mid-back muscle groups are often excessively lengthened and weaker. The head is no longer “balanced” or centered on our spine, and muscles have to compensate in order to prevent the head from traveling even farther forward and losing its normal lordotic curve.


Treating Tension Headaches

Fix ergonomic issues: Do you work at a desk or computer? First establish that your monitor is high enough and at eye level, preventing you from having to frequently look down at an angle. Any heavily-used items such as a keyboard, mouse, and phone should be close to your body. This prevents your shoulder from having to round forward to reach your items. Ensure that your desk chair has proper low back support. Having support in the small of your back will allow you to sit up taller with a stacked spine.

Release tight muscles: Trigger Point dry needling, Active Release Technique (ART), Graston technique, chiropractic adjustments, Class 4 laser therapy, stretching and massage can all be used to help reduce tissue tension. This will allow temporary relief to the muscles, and further take excessive pressure off of the nerves. Ensure you are staying hydrate, as dehydration can also lead to muscle spasming and headaches.



Preventing Future Tension Headaches

Home exercises to strengthen weak muscles and correct poorly developed muscle compensation patterns are fundamental to preventing future flare ups. At Boulder Sports Chiropractic, we give simple and effective exercises to help strengthen the posterior shoulder girdle and back muscles to prevent the rounding of the spine, along with exercises focused on strengthening and creating proper endurance for deep neck flexors.  

Decrease stress levels. Increased stress often leads to disordered breathing patterns and a mild state of hypoxia. We no longer use our diaphragm to properly breathe. The body responds by activating accessory breathing muscles around the head and the neck, which are only meant to be used temporarily during excessive exercise or in a fight-or-flight situation. These patients often describe that they “hold their stress in their neck and shoulders”.  

Remember that it is never normal to have tension headaches. It may be common in some individuals, but there are tools to help decrease the severity and frequency of headache symptoms. Book an appointment with Boulder Sports Chiropractic for headache relief today!