The other day while listening to Balance: In search of the lost sense by Scott McCredie I had an epiphany about movement, headaches and vestibular deficits. Humans have evolved to live bipedal, on the ground and able to travel great distances. Walking, jogging, running, skipping, and jumping are all very instinctual to us and that instinct is matched by our naturally upright posture. Have you ever noticed that your head stays surprisingly neutral and stable while doing almost any activity?
For immediate relief scroll down to “Exercises.” To learn why you may have tension headaches continue reading.
Check out these athletes in action and their reflexive upright head posture.
Like other mammals well adapted for running, humans have an amazing structure called the nuchal ligament. It is an imperative ligament that connects the head and neck, and serves as an attachment point for big stress holders like the trapezius and splenius capitis (read: where you get shoulder knots and tension headaches). It originates at cervical vertebra VII, the base of the neck, and attaches to the occiput, the base of the skull. A well functioning nervous systems displays a balance between tension and relaxation and conversely, a deficient nervous system will display an excess or a lack in tension and relaxation.
So where we feel tension is also where we’ll find poor input. In the case of head and neck tension, the poor input is probably coming from the vestibular system AKA your righting reflex. Imagine the strain on that poor nuchal ligament if the main reflex to keep it steady is not working well! Ouch! Vestibular difficultly in keeping your head upright while walking, running, jumping, or other activity means your body would bear the burden of compensating with what it knows best: muscular tension. In the case of an impaired vestibular system this can cause SO MUCH excess tension in your neck and shoulders.
When your vestibular system is like, “whaaaaaaat’s going on?” Your neck and shoulders be like:
Phew! Hopefully your head isn’t hurting just from processing that information. Case and point: Boosting the functionality of your vestibular system will help relieve the neck and shoulders from their over-time duty of holding the head as still as possible. Now you may be asking, “well the neck and shoulders have to hold up the head anyway. Why do they hurt so much more?” And my response to that would be, “how much harder do you have to work to walk straight when you’re drunk?” A deficient nervous system requires way more effort and muscular tension than necessary (think back to tension and relaxation) to hold you upright. The good news for those who suffer from tension headaches is that the vestibular system can be trained and improved quite easily. Here’s how we do it:
For all of these exercises, you may experience difficulty in consistent action and notice compensations like excess head tilting. Do your best to be impeccable in your quality of movement. Repeat these exercises throughout the day in safe environments (not driving) and notice your neck and shoulder tension reduce. For those who are quite active (3-5 days of moderate-intense exercise week), practice in lunges or balanced on one foot or while holding a free weight.
1. Horizontal nods: Keep your focus straight ahead on a clear visual target. Quickly, but with clear vision, shake your head, “no.”
2. Vertical nods: Keep your focus straight ahead on a clear visual target. Quickly, but with clear vision, shake your head, “yes.”
3. Diagonal nods: Keep your focus straight ahead on a clear visual target. Quickly, but with clear vision, draw a diagonal line initiating with your nose. Repeat opposite diagonal.
4. Side shifts: Keep your focus on a clear visual target. With legs wide (or seated) and shift side to side as quickly as possible with a clear visual target.
Try these exercises out, contact me for questions or a free 15 minute consult, leave a comment, or share with tension-ridden friends. Move well!
*Disclaimer: Vestibular dysfunction is rarely the only reason you’re experiencing tension headaches but the exercises above may very well help. For a deeper understanding and more personalized approach to relieving headaches, please contact Kiera with Smart Move Wellness.