Solving Neck-Based Headaches through Physical Therapy

Strange as it sounds, your pillow may not be on your side. Pillows, especially the fluffy down variety that have long surpassed their natural lifespan, can fail to offer the support your neck needs during the night, leading to neck pain and headaches during the day.

“Your head ends up flopping to one side,” says Dr. Jennifer Penrose, owner of Penrose Physical Therapy. “One side is compressed, the other is stressed and strained.” Something as simple as changing out your pillow can make a difference for those suffering from headaches caused by neck problems. We measure people for custom fit pillows for people who really have struggled with finding the right pillow.

Penrose is used to working with such patients. The good news: through physical therapy and paying attention to their daily routines, most people can alleviate and/or eliminate the issue. “The cause has to be cervicogenic, or coming from the neck,” she explains. “I can’t help people with migraines or headaches due to a hormonal origin, but usually those people have already been to neurologists and had other causes ruled out.”

Multiple factors can lead to cervicogenic headaches, most of them related to daily routines. “I see people who clench their jaws or have bad posture throughout the day and their muscles get tight,” says Penrose. One really easy simple tip for stopping the habit of clenching during the day is just make sure that the tip of your tongue is on the roof of your mouth right behind your front teeth (when you are not talking or eating that is!).  This position is the correct position to keep your jaw relaxed.  We often see neck pain, headaches, face/jaw pain (TMJ dysfunction) go together.  Other times we find that “Sometimes patients need different glasses than the ones they’re using.”

Work or home environments can also be the culprit. One patient worked in a lab routinely hunched over her equipment, which lead to chronic neck pain and headaches. “Posture, mechanics, and tension all play a role,” Penrose notes. “Often these are issues that have been going on for a long time.”

Once she’s identified the source of the problem, Penrose works with patients to change their body mechanics and alignment. Treatment might include manual therapy such as massage, stretching, or manipulation, or exercises designed to strengthen the neck and improve posture. “I feel like I’m a detective half the time,” she says. “If you tell me how you sleep, how you work, and what your daily habits are, I can solve the ergonomic problem.”

Most of the time we sit for too long.  “Sitting is the new smoking!”  Sitting and working at a desk often pulls us into a forward head posture.  The neck muscles have to hold up that head/bowling ball and the muscles start to ache when we have our head a bit forward.  Really examine your sitting posture and make sure your ears are DIRECTLY over your shoulders and your spine is stacked up straight. (see pictures of incorrect posture and correct and notice if the ears are lined up over the shoulders)

Solving the ergonomic and posture problem is definitely the main cause of treating the headaches and neck pain.  However, we definitely do the most manual (hands on) therapy with these clients to release the tight muscles and manually stretch what is tight and over active.  This soft tissue mobilization then allows people to achieve the correct posture and move without pain.

We have a free neck pain tips report if you want to download it here.

For more information or to schedule an appointment with the Penrose Team, visit Penrose & Associates Physical Therapy online or call them at 360-456-1444.

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