Do you suffer from headaches that seem to get worse near the holidays? Do you also experience muscle tension or pain in your upper back, shoulders, jaw, or neck, that get worse before or during headaches?  Between cleaning, shopping, and cooking, the holidays often increase our repetitive upper body activity which leads to pain and headaches for many people. When there is weakness or tightness in the shoulder and neck musculature, our body tends to compensate or overwork muscles that are not ready for the extra demands with the above activities.  Eventually, overloaded and strained muscles may feed pain signals that can lead to a headache.  Let us take a look at how you can work to prevent or control this problem from effecting your holiday season.

The alignment of our spine plays a significant role in how our muscles function. A “slouched” posture puts strain on upper neck and shoulder muscles, and also turns off the postural stabilizing muscles that help hold your head in proper position. Sustaining poor posture can lead to dysfunction of the shoulder complex, reduced shoulder and neck mobility. This sets up the muscles of the upper body to work inefficiently. While this is typically a top down issue as described above, the shoulder can also be the instigator of the problem. For example, the rotator cuff is a group of small muscles surrounding the shoulder with the primary task of keeping the joint stable with movement. If there is injury or weakness there, most people will unknowingly begin using other muscles in their neck or back to help move their arm overhead. The ensuing dysfunctional movement pattern causes additional strain and mechanical problems in the upper body. All of this can trigger a headache.

The incorporation of shoulder blade muscle, back and arm strengthening is common practice in physical therapy settings to help with both shoulder dysfunctions and headaches. A study looking at the decrease in headache frequency in office workers who increased their upper body resistance training highlights the connection between upper body strength and headaches.1 When the shoulder and scapular region is strong, it helps provide a stable base for upper extremity movement and maintain upright postural positioning – both of which can decrease headaches.

What can you do to help strengthen your muscles and keep correct postural positions to get you through the holidays with less pain? A few things to keep in mind:

  1. First, avoiding overuse is important. Taking breaks throughout cleaning, baking and shopping to allow your postural muscles to rest is important.  I promote taking a break by sitting down or lying down, even for 5 minutes, to let muscles rest.  It is always useful during such breaks to work on deep breathing techniques to help relax your muscles and increase the oxygen to the tissues. When leaning over to write Christmas cards or wrap presents, be sure to stop frequently to get out of that position for a few minutes.
  2. Second, body awareness is a huge key for prevention! Whenever possible, try to place objects you need or use frequently in close reach, keep objects close to your body when lifting them, and make sure to use your legs when carrying heavy objects (like taking that heavy pot out of the oven).
  3. Finally, I recommend pausing periodically and checking your posture. This is a good time to get some easy strengthening in, such as squeezing the shoulder blades together and pull them down to activate the correct scapular muscles and opening up the chest to decrease tightness in the pectoral region.  By getting out of a “rounded shoulder” position, you take pressure off the rotator cuff muscles and can allow muscles to work more efficiently.

For more information on how physical therapy can help in prevention and reduction of headaches, contact one of our four clinics. We offer free screenings to assess your strength, posture and other factors that may be contributing to your headaches. Prevention is the best gift you can give yourself this year!

Enjoy the Holidays and stay healthy!

1.) Anderson, L.L., Mortensen, O.S., Zebis, M.K., Jensen, R.H., Poulsen, O.M.;  Effect of brief daily exercise on headache among adults–secondary analysis of a randomized controlled trial, Scand J Work Environ Health. 2011 Nov;37(6):547-50. doi: 10.5271/sjweh.3170. Epub 2011 May 26

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Abigail Jurinek graduated with high honors from Bradley University in 2007 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Health Science and minor in Biology. She went on to graduate in 2010 from the Doctor of Physical Therapy program.