A Look at Headaches and Muscular Tension.

The two most common types of headaches are tension headaches and migraines, with tension headaches being the most common. It’s safe to say that most of us have experienced a tension headache, while about 10% of people get migraines. We often associate tension headaches as being milder than migraines, but this is not necessarily the case.
headache and muscular tension

I need to put a small disclaimer here – if you have a headache that is unusual in nature and is worrying you, get medical attention. Illnesses such as meningitis and encephalitis need to be ruled out. Aneurysms can form in the brain etc. So, if in doubt, check it out.

Sinusitis can also bring about headaches, and, although not a medical emergency, you would do well to have that medically checked out.

With that in mind, what are the central differences between tension and migraine headaches?

Tension Headache. Migraines.
Linked to musculoskeletal pain. This is more like an aching brain.
Can be milder than a migraine but not always. Usually worse than a tension headache.
Both sides of the head normally hurt. Usually, just one side of the head hurts.
Creates a sense of tightness or pressure. Tends to throb.
Can make you noise sensitive. Can make you light and noise sensitive. Certain smells can offend.
Stems from joints and muscles in neck, shoulders, jaw etc. Neurological – related to blood vessels in the brain.
Can be triggered by foods such as chocolate and wine, or fluctuating hormone levels in women.
May present with aura – weird visual and auditory sensations,
Nausea not usually present Usually nausea present

A few other causes of headaches:

Dehydration is probably an over-hyped cause of headaches, and I discuss it in detail below. (There will always be someone you know who will tell you that it’s not the painkiller that works, it’s the water that you drink with it that sorts out the headache – they are the ones who once had a dehydration-induced headache)

Dental problems, temporomandibular joint syndrome

Ear infections (usually fairly obviously an ear problem)

Irritation from hats, helmets, goggles and even pony tails

Glaucoma (damaged optic nerve, often caused by high eyeball pressure)

Because myofascial release can help with tension headaches, I want to spend most of my time looking at tension headaches, although a bit of time will be spent looking at migraines.

So, a tension headache occurs when certain muscle groups tense up. They can tense up through sport, sleeping in a bad position, stress etc.

Let’s look at some of the things that you can do to help –

  1. Relax.
    What’s the worst thing you can say to someone who is stressed? Yes – Relax. So, as I write the word down, I write it with caution.
    Do research on relaxation techniques and meditation. I am not an expert on these and so will stop there. My go to place for a sense of wellbeing is to go on a long run. I have a 21k route that I call my ‘psychologist’ route. I sort all my stuff out there.
    Also, try and find your biggest stressor and work out a strategy to get through it. Your biggest stressor might be something that will take a while to deal with, so, as you deal with it, practice relaxation techniques, meditation, and an endurance sport.
  2. Stretching and strengthening.
    There has been a fair amount of research on the importance of strengthening the neck muscles. Remember, a tight muscle is not necessarily a strong muscle. This article should help with the importance of neck strength.
    The starting point here would be to get lots of movement into the neck. Make sure that you do not experience pain as you do so. Chat to a personal trainer and ask about ways of strengthening the neck.
  3. Posture improvement.
    Learn to stand and sit tall. Getting into the habit of your neck leaning forward is detrimental to all the muscles that hold up your head. The latest term, “text neck” describes the position most of us place our heads in if we are reading or texting on our cell phones.
  4. Workstation ergonomics.
    I meet a number of people with neck strain who tell me that it comes primarily from working in front of a computer the whole day. Most people tell me that they work off a laptop. The problem with that is the screen position of the laptop. If you do work off one, get the laptop raised up, so that the top of the screen is just below your eye level. Then, plug in a separate keyboard so that your arms are in a comfortable position. It really is inhumane for companies to expect staff to work for hours behind a computer and not look after their postures.
    It might be an idea to invest in a telephone headpiece if you spend a lot of time on the phone per day. You really don’t want to grip the ear and mouth-piece between your head and shoulder.
  5. Heat.
    Muscles respond well to heat. Try massaging neck, face and jaw muscles out with a warm face cloth. See what works.
  6. OTC Drugs.
    I am not equipped to discuss over the counter drugs, rather have a chat to your pharmacist. However, realize that no pain-killer is safe. You would never take a painkiller for a splinter. You would first remove the splinter. In the same way, try and find out what is causing the headache and deal with that. Using painkillers is necessary in order to get you through a tough day, but, don’t abuse them.
  7. Corrective eyewear.
    Get your eyes checked out. You don’t want to lean toward the screen in order to make words out. See your optometrist. Also, avoid using bifocals in front of a computer. They often require you to tilt your head so that you look through the correct lens. Get a pair of glasses that are dedicated to computer work.
  8. General exercise.
    Exercise is always a good idea. It gets movement going, and muscles respond well to movement. It also gets some happy chemicals moving through your brain and improves sleep.
  9. Myofascial release/Massage.
    Getting specific muscles released is always a good idea.
    Muscles that need to be looked at include:
    – The suboccipitals. I am fascinated with this muscle group. I dedicated a blog to them.
    – The temples house the temporalis muscle. The temporalis muscle is used to move the jaw. head and neck muscles
    – The masseter. Clench your teeth, Press your fingers along your jaw line toward your ear. Your fingers will hit a solid muscle, that’s your masseter. (Please don’t clench your teeth with your fingers in your mouth, this would not be a good idea)
    – The trapezius. The upper trap is the big muscle on top of your shoulders leading up to your head.
    – The upper back. These muscles can contribute to stress in the neck and hence, tension headaches.
    – If the upper back is tight, the lower back is normally tight as well.
    – The scalenes. These muscles are on the side of the neck.
    – The SCM muscle. I have written a blog on this muscle. The muscle can shorten due to a forward head posture. Bad posture, excessive computer work and dropping your head to read your cell phone can all contribute to the muscle shortening.
    I do a lot of myofascial release. You can check out our pricing here.

I really hope that this helps.


Mike Roscoe.
Mike Roscoe


About sbrsport

SBR Sport specialises in Swimming, Biking and Running. On the medical side we are able to do intensive bike setups, leg assessments and soft tissue release. - www.twitter.com/swimbikerunshop and/or facebook - www.facebook.com/sbrsport.
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