By Katherine Hartsell, PTA
The longer days and warmer temperatures help many people decompress and recharge. For others though, like those with a history of tension headaches, relaxation can feel inaccessible. The good news is that even if your headaches have historically interfered with your summer, or even if you can’t take time off work to unwind, you can send your tension headaches on a permanent vacation. The first step is to find the core muscles you never knew you had. These core muscles, called your deep neck flexors, are located on the front and sides of the cervical spine, beneath the trachea in your throat. Referred to as core muscles because are their deep location, these small muscles are responsible for stabilizing the cervical spine and for centering the head over the shoulders.
Even for exercise savvy folks, these muscles are often neglected during strengthening programs. Since we need to hold our heads up all day long, weakness in the deep neck flexors can have significant consequences. Without these stabilizing muscles working in the front of the neck, a constant gripping sensation can develop in the back of the neck. This results in tension, which leads to an ache, which lands you in the middle of a full blown tension headache.
To strengthen your deep flexor muscles lay on your back with your feet flat and with a small hand towel rolled behind your neck. Slowly and gently guide the neck into a very mild “yes” position and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat this 10 times several times a day. Headaches have a variety of causes and often require a variety of physical therapy tools, including extensive postural training, massage, traction, therapeutic exercises, and stress reduction. However, this simple exercise is a good first step for stabilizing your neck and easing your tension. Also, if your summer schedule allows it, spend less time in front of the computer and more time relaxing your brain.
Yoga tip: Yogis traditionally place the tip of the tongue at the roof of the mouth. It is impossible to clench the jaw at the same time, so if you find you are tensing up at your computer or while strengthening your deep neck flexors, try it!
Katherine Hartsell is a Physical Therapy Assistant at Boston Sports Medicine