Stretches to Prevent Tension Headaches

 by Lauren Zilke, PT, DPT

For the past few months, we have been dealing with lifestyle changes due to the Covid 19 outbreak.  The uncertainty of these circumstances can be stressful and perhaps has led to the development of headaches for some.  The good news is that there are ways to help prevent frequent episodes of headaches.      


What is a tension headache?

There are several different types of headaches: tension, migraines, cervicogenic, hypertension, and more.  Tension headaches are quite common with up to 80% of adults experiencing at least one in their lifetime.  How can you tell if your headache may be a tension headache?  Here are some common signs of a tension headache:

  • Bilateral pain (pain on both sides of head and neck)
  • Feels tight or pressing (not throbbing)
  • Mild to moderate intensity
  • Not aggravated by physical activity ie. walking


What causes tension headaches?

Tight muscles surrounding the neck press on nerves that refer pain to another location, in this case, the head.  Stress can cause headaches due to prolonged contraction of these muscles.  For example, you may notice that you tense up and shrug your shoulders when stressed.  Likewise, poor posture can play a role as prolonged poor positioning can alter mechanics and cause muscular imbalances.  


What stretches should I perform to reduce muscle tension?

Perform the following 3-5 times per day, holding for 30 seconds:


Arendt‐Nielsen, L. (2015), Headache: muscle tension, trigger points and referred pain. Int J Clin Pract, 69: 8-12. doi:10.1111/ijcp.12651

Palmer E. Headache, Tension. Richman S, ed. CINAHL Rehabilitation Guide. March 2019.

Thomas K. Pondering Posture. Co-Kinetic Journal. 2020;(84):24.

Thomas K. Treating Headaches: Can be a Pain in the Neck. Co-Kinetic Journal. 2020;(83):21.

Images adopted from WebPT home exercise program.