Headache and Neck Tension

By Dennis Yang

There are over 150 types of headaches that have been identified by the medical community, and they can be caused by a variety of sources ranging from food allergies, hormonal imbalances, immobile cranial sutures, tight shoulders, a twisted pelvis, all the way down to sprained ankles.  While the detective work of a skilled medical practitioner is necessary to sort through such variety and complexity to properly diagnose and treat the root cause of a headache, the majority of headaches often disappear rather instantly when the tension in the neck gets released.  The best explanation I can think of for this phenomenon is a rather simple one.

The brain receives blood from the internal carotid arteries and the vertebral arteries.  When the muscles in the neck become overly tight, they can squeeze these arteries enough to slow down the blood supply to the brain, causing a pain response that we experience as a headache.  While the medical community does not have a clearly established theory on the cause of headaches, this rather simple theory of mine is observed in my clinic time and time again; every headache patient has tight neck muscles, and when released, the headache disappears.

Of course, the structural imbalances that caused the neck tension in the first place, as well as other non-structural contributing factors, need to be addressed for a permanent cure.  However, I always treat the neck tension no matter what the root cause is, and I prescribe a few exercises to my patients to further release the neck tension at home.  Here are two that I have found most helpful.

Exercise #1 – the easiest exercise is the one that uses a device that provides a gentle traction.  You lie down on your back, and rest your neck on it for about 20 minutes.  The device gently pulls the head away from the body, and relaxes the posterior neck muscles as well as the upper back muscles.  I have found two products that do this at amazon.com; “Real-Ease Neck and Shoulder Relaxer” and “Neck and Back Stretcher.”

Exercise #2 – While very easy to use, the type of devices in exercise #1 does not directly address the deeper tissues, such as suboccipital muscles.  To release the tension in the deeper muscles directly, a device that provides positional release is necessary.  This device requires a bit more work; you lie down on your back, and rest the top portion of your neck on it until “therapeutic pulses” quiet down, and move on to the next portion of the neck.  Repeat until you cover the entire neck.  A therapeutic pulse is a small fasciculation of a muscle that takes place as the muscle regains its normal length.  I have found one device that does this at amazon.com; “Davinci Tool.”  This device reaches the deeper muscles of the neck, but does not affect the upper back muscles.

If you want to test whether any of these devices can alleviate your headache before investing in them, put two tennis balls in a sock, and use it as prescribed in exercise #2.

My father used to say that 70% of all the diseases come from the neck.  I am rediscovering the truth of his observation on my own with my patients.  Neck, especially between the occiput, the base of a skull, and atlas, the first cervical bone, is vitally important in health as the cranial nerves exit from there.  I pay special attention to this area when treating insomnia, anxiety, hypertension, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and a variety of digestion issues.  I will talk more about these in the future articles.