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Neck and shoulder muscle tightness can be a large contributor to headache and migraine symptoms, meaning that it is imperative for this tightness to be addressed. 

Watch the video below to see a demonstration of the above exercises by our Director Bertrand Doeuk!

What is muscle tightness? 

Muscle tightness is a common product of overuse or overactivity of the muscles, resulting in tension and reduced range of motion. Common muscles involved in headaches and migraines are the upper trapezius and the levator scapulae.

Upper Trapezius

The trapezius muscle has three parts: upper, middle and lower. However, the upper portion is most commonly tight in headache and migraine sufferers. The upper traps attaches to the external occipital protuberance (the large bump at the base of your skull) and the lateral third of the clavicle (collar bone). This means that when it is tight, the muscle is pulling on all of your cervical vertebrae (bones in the neck). Slight deviations in cervical spine alignment can result in a change in information processed by the brainstem, meaning that it becomes over-sensitised. Headaches and migraine symptoms are worsened by this.

This muscle helps to extend the neck so is used when looking up, as well as to tilt your head to the side and is involved in shoulder elevation. A significant contributor to upper trapezius tightness is posture, which results in the muscle being largely overused and thus is tight in a lot of people. However, for some, it can have a much larger impact on their headache/migraine symptoms. Another contributor is weakness in the middle and lower portions of the trapezius muscle, as this causes the upper portion to have to work harder. Strengthening of these muscles is an important part of reducing tightness.

Levator Scapulae

The levator scapulae attaches to the transverse processes of the upper cervical spine and the superior medial border of the scapula, meaning that it is a direct link between the shoulder blade and the upper neck. Tightness of the levator scapulae can result in headache and migraines due to the pull on the vertebrae. Tightness in the levator scapulae is also common from poor posture, as this muscle overworks to maintain shoulder position. Strengthening other back muscles can help to improve this. The levator scapulae also helps to elevate and downwardly rotate the shoulder blade, meaning it is commonly overused when sitting at a desk in a hunched-over position.

How to relieve tightness in the upper trapezius?

A simple stretch for the upper trapezius muscle can be done repeatedly throughout the day, in order to reduce tightness and thus help to minimise migraines and headaches.

This can be performed in sitting, where you hold on to the edge of the chair and then lean away from that side to depress the shoulder. By then gently lowering your head to your opposite shoulder, there should be more of a stretch.

How to relieve tightness in the levator scapulae?

A similar stretch to above can be done to target the levator scapulae. Starting in the same position sitting on a chair, holding on to the edge and leaning away, you then look down towards the opposite shoulder instead of tilting your head.

These two stretches can be done repeatedly, holding for 15-30s each time to help relieve migraine and headache related tension in the neck and shoulder.


Further exercises to address muscle tightness

A progression of the above, explained stretches can be used to provide a more intense and effective stretch to reduce tension and tightness in these muscles.

This encompasses a technique called self-triggering, which involves locating a trigger point, and applying pressure whilst also performing the stretch. A trigger point, more commonly known as a knot, is a painful spot of most tension in the muscle. To locate the trigger point, you can use two fingers to feel around the upper trapezius muscle on your shoulder to locate a sore spot. It is important to spend some time trying to locate the most painful spots, as relieving the larger trigger points can be more effective in reducing headache and migraine symptoms.

If you can reproduce your headache symptoms via the trigger point, this shows that you are on an active trigger point meaning that it is a point of tension that is actively contributing to your headaches and migraines. Relieving these trigger points can result in immediate pain relief or reduction in symptoms.

Once you have located the trigger point, you can hold pressure there and perform the stretch in order to relieve tension in the muscle further.

Watch the video for a demonstration of this technique by our Director clinician Bertrand Doeuk!

If you have any questions in regards to headache-related neck and shoulder tightness, please contact us today!

If you are or know someone who is a sufferer of headaches and migraines, please contact us on 1800 HEADACHE or email [email protected] to book in for a careful assessment and diagnosis now!

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