The most common pain pattern I see as a massage therapist is muscle tension in the neck and upper back/shoulder region. The muscles in these areas are the “fight or flight” muscles that respond to elevated stress hormones coursing throughout our circulatory system. This often results in a stress headache, often called a tension headache.
Headaches can categorized as primary or secondary. A primary headache is one where the headache is the condition. Tension headaches, cluster headaches and migraine headaches come under this category.
Secondary headaches are the result of another condition. While only 0.004 percent of headaches are a result of a condition such as hypertension or head trauma, it is important to get a qualified medical diagnosis when suffering from chronic headaches. It is rare for a “new” headache pattern to begin in later life, particularly after the age of 50, and this should be brought to the attention of your physician as it may indicate an underlying condition.
Stress headaches are different from sinus headaches , which typically occur on either side and/or bridge of the nose and above the eyes .
90 percent of headaches are tension headaches that are a result of muscle contraction. Initially this tension may only be felt as tightness and loss of range of motion. As stress and tension build up, the body signals us by sending us pain messages. Often this leads to painful stress headaches, sometimes called tension headaches.
Causes of these tension patterns may be trauma to the head, neck or spine, acute muscle overload, infections such as sinusitis, fatigue and sleep deprivation, chilling of the muscle, referred pain and emotional stress.
Postural imbalance can also lead to muscle tension and pain in the back, neck and head. TMJ (temporomandibular joint disfunction) is also a leading cause of headache pain.
Massage is a very effective treatment for stress headaches. Often a client will come in after having suffered from escalating pain for a number of days or weeks. In hopes of getting relief from the pain, which has begun to seriously affect their daily activities, the client often will request a “deep tissue massage” in the mistaken belief that the more pain, the more pressure will be needed to relieve the muscles that have become tense to the point of feeling like hard knots. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Deep tissue is contraindicated during a stress/tension headache. Vigorous or deep techniques may result in “kick-back” pain when tender trigger points are irritated beyond tolerance. This “kick-back” pain may occur hours or even days after the massage. If your massage therapist begins to use quick compressions or deep treatment to the neck and upper back area, don’t be shy; ask them to use a gentle relaxing technique.
Only a trained therapist or physical therapist who has advanced training in using passive stretches and correct application of heat should ever use deep tissue tecnniques, sometimes called “deep muscle”, in this area. Even so, they will be very conservative as it is easy to damage the sensitive muscle, tendon, ligament, nerve and vascular tissue of the neck and upper spine, especially when those muscles are suffering from chronic tension and the resulting poor blood circulation.
Positioning face down or side-lying may be necessary, as the face-down position may put too much pressure on painful areas of the face. The most effective treatment includes soothing Swedish techniques such as stroking and gentle kneading of the pectorals and posterior neck muscles. The tension pattern often extends down into the upper back area such as upper trapezius and levator scapulae.
Following the massage with a hot bath, especially when adding a couple cups of Epsom salt, will help further the benefits of the massage. You may want to also use ice on the affected area; it should be held on the area for about 20 minutes; too short or two long a time may actually increase inflammation and pain. A package of frozen vegetables works very well as an ice pack.
Be sure to drink plenty of water. Dehydration is the most common cause of muscle tension. Adequate hydration is so important that I always advise my clients to drink plenty of water after a massage. This not only increases the benefits of the massage, but can also prevent pain from the massage occuring hours or even days following the massage.
While stress headaches are all too common, there are a number of things that can help relieve a headache resulting from muscle tension. Massage will often relieve headache pain from a tension headache. Soothing herbal tea, especially feverfew tea, will often get rid of a mild tension headache. It is always faster and easier to remedy stress related tension If steps are taken before the tension escalates into pain.
Please do share your experience with others; others can benefit from your success! I would love to hear how you deal with stress-related headaches in the Comments section below.
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