Stress and Headaches

Headaches develop for a number of reasons.  Some are caused by changes to the atmospheric pressure while others may be caused from hormones, medications, lack of water, or sensitivities to certain foods or beverages; but what about stress?

When people encounter stress whether it is emotional or physical, there are changes that occur to our muscles.  For example, stress may cause a person to hold their shoulders in a shrugged position, as though wearing their shoulders as earrings.  When our muscles are placed in this state they contract more forcefully or constantly than when we are relaxed.   Muscles that are contracted continuously develop stress which in turn develops trigger points.   Trigger points, in simple terms, are irritable spots located in specific areas of our body that cause certain symptoms in predictable locations.   Our trapezius muscle, often referred to as the traps, is a common muscle that develops trigger points when we are stressed.  This muscle lifts our shoulders up.  When trigger points develop in this muscle, symptoms that can develop are headaches at the temples, or base of the scull.    Additional symptoms that may occur from this trigger point are pain behind the eyes, dizziness, neck pain or intolerance to weight being placed on your shoulders.

upper trap trigger point Self massage for upper trap

Massage, heat and stretching can eliminate the trigger points.  Self-massage can also work to treat a trigger point.  Gently sink into your tissues at the top of your shoulder using the pads of your fingers until you find a spot that creates a headache, then hold this pressure at a tolerable pain level and wait until the headache decreases.  If the pain does not decrease in a short time frame, discontinue and apply heat and then gently stretch the muscle.  Or using the pads of your fingers, place the hand over the top of your shoulder in a cupped position, then gently sink into the tissue and pull the tissue towards the front of your body.  Repeat this move a number of times until you feel a softening in the tissue or a decrease in the intensity of the headache.  Stretch upper trap

To stretch the right upper trapezius muscle, place your right hand behind your back, then gently tip your left ear towards your left shoulder and with your left hand place it at the side of your right temple and gently pull your head to the left until you feel a mild discomfort.  A stretch should not be taken into a position that causes pain.  Hold the stretch for 20 – 30 seconds and repeat 3 times.

Heat application to upper backThe heat application should be moist heat placed on the top of the shoulders and upper back region.    When placing heat over the shoulders, be careful not to let your head project forward, rather keep the neck in a more upright position.   Leave the heat on the shoulders, back and neck for  approximately 20 minutes.  If heat remains on the area for periods of time longer than 20 minutes, it can cause irritation and increased pain symptoms.