Can You Fix Headaches Through Exercise?

Yes You Can!

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from new clients (as well as family and friends) is about headaches. Nothing sets your day back like waking up with searing pain in your head and neck. Tension headaches are the most common, but migraines and cluster headaches are also very frequent. No matter what type you’re dealing with, headaches can be absolutely debilitating. However, a focused exercise routine can very much help reduce both the intensity and the frequency of headaches. How exactly does exercise help with headaches, you might ask?

The simplest answer is that many headaches are in large part due to muscular tension because of bad posture. The other biggest factor is stress, which physically manifests in muscular tension of the neck, shoulder and back. You see this in how people sit: hunched forward, with their shoulders way in front of their neck, and their ears practically touching their collarbones. Since the human response to stress is circular, reducing muscular tension of the upper back and neck will help reduce stress, and reducing stress will help with tension. Therefore exercise and postural work will help avoid headaches through both physical re-balancing and through reducing stress.

Posture Is Key

Laptops are a major reason for neck issues and headaches.

Postural work always includes a breathing component and a mindfulness component, because without improving your breath and focus, it is difficult to achieve a new, more balanced posture. Improving your breathing can have a tremendous impact on your health, including eliminating headaches. Shallow, rapid breathing produces an increase in adrenaline, which increases stress through the fight-or-flight response. This response is an ancient, evolutionary system that used to keep our ancestors alive by making them run faster and longer when being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. It was designed for short burst of adrenaline release, not for a steady, constant drip due to stress. The antidote to it is steady, slow, deep breathing that increases parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activation. The PNS shuts down muscle tension, slow the heart rate and decreases anxiety, all great things to reduce headaches.

Exercises for Better Posture

The actual exercise component should focus on finding a better position for your neck, shoulders and upper spine. Working on lengthening the front muscles such as the pectorals will help reduce loading on the shoulders.

Making sure the back has the ability to extend backwards and rotate freely is also critical. A good routine should include core work, cardio-vascular exercise and basic strength-training. Yoga is excellent for posture, as is Pilates, because they both focus on lengthening the spice and back muscles.
In addition, just going for a daily walk can improve headaches! The improved blood-flow and back-and-forth movement of the shoulders and the arms helps release tension in the upper body. Weight-training should be carefully considered. Doing too much upper body work such as heavy rows or shoulder presses can increase neck tension. Loading the neck with a bar as in squats can also create more issues. If you like lifting weights but still get headaches, talk to a postural specialist in your gym for suggested improvements to your routine.

A Short Exercise Routine to Help With Headaches

  1. Wall Angels: Excellent for activating the back muscles, straightening the back, and stretching the front torso muscles such as the pecs. A posture gold-standard exercise. Repeat the up-and-down movement about 8x.
  2. Chin Retractions: Standing against the wall, tuck your chin and push your head back gently into the wall. Try to feel the back of the neck stretching. Hold each push for about 5 seconds and repeat 6x.
  3. Chest Stretch: Put one of your hands just above head height into a doorway or on a wall. Turn slowly towards the opposite side so that you feel your chest muscles stretch. Try to stay as tall as you can, without hunching or arching your back.
  4. All Fours Torso Rotations: get down on all fours, then place one hand behind your neck, gently. Now take your elbow and rotate it up towards the ceiling, trying to rotate your entire spine with it. Try to take a deep breath at the top of the movement, and exhale on the way down. Repeat 8x per side, hold the top for 5 seconds.

Changes in Daily Habits that Will Help With Headaches

The last component is ergonomics: the continuous improvements you can make to your daily activities to improve your posture. How you sit at work or while driving, how you sleep and even how you exercise all add or detract to your daily physical stress level. They are all critical in improving posture and headache symptoms. Here a small list of ergonomical changes you can implement to decrease your risk of getting tension headaches:

  • Drive with your seat closer to the steering wheel: too far back and you have to lean forward to reach, causing shoulder tension
  • sit upright in general, but change your seating position regularly to avoid overloading the same tissue
  • try to use a desktop monitor whenever you can. Looking down at laptops, tablets and phones is probably the biggest contributor to tension headaches in today’s society
  • have elbow rests on your office chair so the weight of your arms does not constantly load your neck
  • use lumbar support for your lower back: maintaining a lower back arch will take tension out of your upper back and shoulders
  • get up from your chair as much as you can: walk around when talking on the phone, have walking meetings and don’t sit on public transport

If you have headaches, don’t give up on fixing them. There are lots of things you can do to get rid of them, and as an added bonus, they are all really good for you! Hope you found this article useful. Email me any questions at [email protected]

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