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  • Writer's pictureSam Kelokates

Neck Tightness in Tension Headache and Migraine

Updated: Jun 22

Have you ever found yourself trying to stretch your neck or shoulders, trying to ease that nagging tightness that just doesn't seem to go away with headaches?

If you suffer from migraines or tension headaches, this scenario might be all too familiar.

The muscles of the upper back and neck often take the blame for contributing to these types of headaches. I

t's a widespread belief that this muscle tightness is a direct source of pain and irritation

women touching back of neck due to feeling tightness

Now, here's where many get it wrong. There's a common misconception that when muscles feel tight, they must be shortened and need stretching to fix the problem.

It's an understandable assumption...if something feels tight, it must need stretching out, right? But what if I told you that the issue is more complex than it seems and that stretching might not be the solution you need?

I want to unravel the actual causes of that tension you're feeling and steer you towards strategies that can genuinely make a difference.

Forget the endless cycle of stretching with no relief. Let's talk about what's really going on with your muscles and how to address it effectively.


What is Causing Neck Tightness with Headaches?

When it comes to the discomfort we often associate with our daily lives, especially for those battling frequent headaches, muscle tightness in the neck and upper back is a familiar problem.

It's a sensation that many of us instinctively link to daily headaches, assuming that these stiff, aching muscles are at the root of the problem. The immediate response? Stretch it out.

This instinct is based on the common belief that tight muscles are physically constricted and shorter than they should be, thus pulling everything out of whack and triggering our headaches.

However, this is where we find widespread misconception about what is muscle tightness.

The reality is that the feeling of muscle tightness, particularly around our upper traps and the base of our skulls (the suboccipital muscles) is not always indicative of actual muscle shortening.

Yes, you heard that right. While it's counterintuitive, what you're feeling as tightness isn't necessarily a sign that your muscles have shrunk or need to be lengthened through stretching.

Muscle tightness is more a sensation or a signal from your body rather than a literal condition of your muscle fibers. It's your body's way of saying, "Hey, something's not right here."

This doesn't diminish your experience of pain or discomfort. It's important to understand what our body is actually trying to communicate to us with this tightness.

The tightness and aching are undoubtedly real. And understanding this distinction is important in taking the correct steps for long-term management of your discomfort effectively.

Why Does My Neck Feel Tight And I Have A Headache?

Let's peel back the layers and look at what's truly happening beneath the surface when we talk about muscle tightness, especially in the context of prolonged postures and muscular weakness.

Prolonged Postures:

It's a modern-day problem. Many of us spend hours hunched over computers or peering into smartphones, often without realizing the strain we're putting on our bodies. But it's not "bad posture" vs "good posture"

Staying in one position for too long is the real problem. This often can lead to muscle fatigue.

Our muscles are designed for movement, not to hold one position for hours. So, when they're held in a static position, they begin to protest. Our body communicates this as what we perceive as tightness.

It's a signal that it's time to move and adjust our posture. But there's more happening here than just discomfort from staying still.

This prolonged immobility can lead to something known as muscle ischemia, where there's a decrease in blood flow to the muscles. Blood is essential for providing oxygen and nutrients while removing waste products.

When there's a lack of circulation, muscles are deprived of what they need to function optimally, leading to that familiar sensation of tightness and pain.

This isn't just about discomfort. It's a physiological cry for change, indicating that your muscles are not receiving the oxygen they need.

Muscular Weakness:

Now, let's talk about another critical aspect that contributes to tightness, muscular weakness.

Specifically, when the muscles around the neck and upper back lack strength and endurance, they struggle to properly support the head and maintain a healthy posture. This deficiency can be particularly impactful for individuals suffering from headache disorders.

Weak, fatigued muscles in these areas contribute to the onset and severity of headaches, forming a vicious cycle of pain and tightness.

The connection between muscle endurance and headache disorders cannot be overstated. When your neck and upper back muscles lack the stamina they need, they signal distress in the form of tightness and pain, potentially triggering or exacerbating headache symptoms.

By understanding this link, we can start to see why simply stretching these muscles might not provide the relief we're seeking and why building strength and endurance is a critical piece of the puzzle in managing headache-related discomfort.

Should You Stretch a Tight Neck?

When faced with the discomfort of muscle tightness, the first impulse for many is to stretch. Stretching can feel good, for some it offers temporary relief. It's a natural response: if something feels tight, the instinct is to try and lengthen it.

This approach is rooted in our collective belief system about physical well-being—stretch to fix tightness. However, this isn't the best approach for neck pain and headaches.

Here's the crux of the matter: while stretching provides short-term relief, it doesn't address the underlying issues of muscle fatigue, ischemia, and weakness.

Moreover, the relief obtained from stretching is often fleeting. While it can feel soothing and may even reduce perceived tightness temporarily, this approach doesn't change the muscle's ability to handle stress or support your posture during the day.

Once the immediate effects of stretching wear off, you're likely to find yourself back at square one, dealing with the same tightness and pain as before.

It's also important to consider that excessive or improper stretching can lead to further issues. This is particularly relevant for muscles that are already overworked and fatigued from trying to compensate for weakness elsewhere.

While stretching has its place in a balanced physical wellness routine, it's not the best solution for muscle tightness that contributes to headaches and neck pain.

By shifting our focus from temporary fixes to long-term solutions, we can achieve more sustainable improvements in our physical well-being.

How to Loosen Tightness of the Neck with Headaches?

Now that we've explored the misconceptions surrounding muscle tightness and the limited effectiveness of stretching, it's time to dive into what can actually help.

Two key strategies stand out: changing postures often and integrating resistance exercise into your routine.

Changing Postures Often

One of the simplest yet most effective changes you can make is to modify your posture frequently throughout the day. Our bodies aren't designed for prolonged periods of immobility, especially in positions that strain the neck and upper back.

By shifting your position regularly, you can prevent muscle fatigue and maintain blood flow by shifting areas of physical demand on the neck and back. This is essential for keeping those aching sensations at bay.

Make a conscious effort to adjust your posture every 30 minutes or so. If you're working at a desk, stand up, take a short walk, or even just stretch your legs and arms.

This isn't about making dramatic changes but rather introducing subtle movements to break the cycle of static posture. The importance of this cannot be overstated. By keeping the body moving, you encourage circulation and reduce the risk of muscle tightness and ischemia.

Resistance Exercise

While changing postures offers a simple approach to prevention, resistance exercises provide a long-term solution to muscle tightness, particularly in the neck and upper back.

Resistance exercises are designed to strengthen muscles, thereby reducing the likelihood of fatigue and improving your ability to maintain various postures without discomfort.

But how exactly do resistance exercises help? Here's a closer look:

  • Building Muscle Endurance: Resistance training increases the stamina of your muscles, allowing them to perform better and longer without fatigue. This is crucial for those who suffer from tightness due to muscular weakness.

  • Improving Blood Flow: Regular resistance exercise can enhance circulation, ensuring that your muscles receive a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients while efficiently removing waste products. This increased blood flow helps to prevent the muscle ischemia that contributes to tightness.

  • Raising Pain Thresholds: Over time, resistance training can also increase your pain pressure thresholds. This means your muscles become less sensitive to the stimuli that typically cause discomfort, leading to a decrease in perceived tightness and pain.

Start with exercises that target the neck and upper back, focusing on moderate weights and repetitions to build endurance without straining these areas. Seek guidance from a physical therapist or a fitness professional to ensure that you're performing these exercises correctly and safely.

In one study that looked at neck pain and headache is office works they had participants do ONE exercise daily. This exercise resulted in fewer headaches and less neck pain.

Learn more about it in this video:

By incorporating regular movement breaks and resistance exercises into your routine, you can address the root causes of muscle tightness rather than merely treating the symptoms. This proactive approach can lead to more significant, lasting relief, transforming how your body feels and functions daily.

Implementing Changes for Long-term Relief

Achieving lasting relief from headache and migraine-related neck pain and tightness requires more than just understanding the problem. It demands actionable solutions integrated into your daily life. Here’s how you can start making those vital changes:

Practical Tips for Daily Routines:

Set reminders to adjust your posture every 30 minutes if you’re working at a desk. Think ‘ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips’ for a good alignment.

Introduce short, frequent breaks into your day to stretch and walk around. This can prevent muscle fatigue and maintain blood flow, reducing the risk of tightness.

Starting with Resistance Exercises:

Begin with light resistance exercises that focus on strengthening the neck and upper back. Elastic bands or light weights can be effective tools.

Focus on exercises that promote endurance and strength without overexertion. Remember, the goal is to build strength gradually to support your posture without straining the muscles.

Progressing Safely:

As your strength builds, gradually increase the resistance or number of repetitions. Listen to your body and ensure you do not push to the point of pain.

Consider exercises that involve multiple muscle groups and mimic daily activities. This helps improve your functional strength, making everyday movements easier and more comfortable.

Consistency is Key:

Make these exercises and posture checks a regular part of your routine. Consistency is crucial for building strength and reaping long-term benefits.

Remember, changes won't happen overnight, but with persistence, you should start to feel improvements in your muscle strength and reduced tightness.

Take Control of Your Life: Join Our Specialized 3-Month Program

Ready to take a more structured approach to manage your headache and migraine disorders? Join our specialized 3-Month Neck & Shoulder Strength Program designed specifically for individuals like you.

This program combines professional guidance to help you understand your condition and manage it effectively.

We provide practical strategies for integrating posture changes and resistance exercises into your life, tailored to alleviate the muscle tightness associated with headaches and migraines.

By enrolling in our program, you'll be empowered with the knowledge and tools needed for long-term relief.

Don't let headache and migraine-induced discomfort dictate your life. Join our program today and embark on a journey towards a more comfortable, pain-free future.

Fill out the form below to get more information about this 3-month strength program for headache and neck pain!

About Me:

Hi, my name is Sam Kelokates, PT, DPT. I am a physical therapist and owner of Kelos Physical Therapy, located in Philadelphia, PA. I specialize in the non-pharmacological management of headache and migraine disorders.


This blog post is for informational purposes only and should not replace professional medical advice or treatment. Always consult with a qualified healthcare provider for personalized guidance and recommendations.

I may earn commissions for purchases made through the links in this post

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