Tension Headaches - Kinetic Edge Physical Therapy
Tuesday January 7, 2020
by Dr. Troy Vander Molen, PT, DPT

What are they?

Figure 1 Tension Headaches
Figure 1: Tension Headaches

Pain that you experience in any part of the head is called a headache. However, there are many different types of headaches including migraine, cluster, and headaches originating from nerve irritation.

Tension headaches (also known as muscle-spasm headaches) are the most common type of headache. They are often the result of a neck or jaw problem, poor posture, fatigue or stress. Any problem that results in tension in the muscles at the back of the head can place pressure on the nerves to the face and head, triggering the headache (Figure 1).

Common symptoms

A tension headache usually begins at the back of the head and spreads to the top of the head. You may feel either pain and/or a pressure sensation. Some people feel pain and muscle tightness along the cheeks near the jaw bone. These symptoms often worsen with specific postures like sitting at a desk, using a handheld device, or playing video games. Often times they will ease with rest. If there’s no posterior head discomfort and the pain is only on the sides of the head or behind your eyes, it’s not likely to be a tension headache.

Take the tennis ball test

Headaches that originate from the base of your neck may be tension headaches. If these headaches vary in intensity based upon various postures and positions, likelihood is greater. To verify if your headache symptoms may be tension-related, take the tennis ball test.

Simply use athletic or duct tape to secure one tennis ball next to another.tennis ball test 2

Then lay on your back on a fairly solid surface and place the tennis balls at the base of your head where it meets your neck.tennis ball test

Perform a mild chin tuck, which should roll the tight muscles over the tennis balls.Tennis bal test

If this area is tight and sore, and mild self-massage relieves pressure and reduces the head pain, there is a good chance that you deal with tension headaches.

When should I call a physical therapist?

Because there are many causes for muscle tension headaches, it is important to see a physical therapist. Your PT will be able to ask appropriate questions and perform tests to determine the cause of your headaches. Once the origin of your problems is identified your PT will work with you to correct the problems. This may include:

  • Improving neck mobility – using manual therapy treatments
  • Increasing your strength – using specific exercises that target your neck and upper back
  • Correcting your posture – often times the person dealing with headaches is unaware of problematic postural tendencies
  • Modifying your workstation or home office

Email or call us at (866) 588-0230 if you think you’re experiencing tension headaches. Please understand that living with pain is not an option. There is a solution, often a pretty simple one. Kinetic Edge Physical Therapy movement specialists are equipped to improve comfort and performance to restore your health, happiness, and hope!

Information adapted from Move Forward and the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)