A steady creep of pain across your temples and scalp often means one thing: You're getting a headache.
It's also likely that tension is bringing it on—and that the tension has found a home in your back, shoulders, neck or jaw.
“The main reason we call it a tension headache is because it comes from muscles,” says Babak Mokari, D.O., an osteopathic physician, who owns Healing Arts Medical in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Everyday stress or emotional rigors could be to blame, leading you to scrunch your shoulders or clench your jaw.
Sometimes the tension is purely physical: Carrying your purse awkwardly, cradling a phone at your ear, poor posture. Plus, “the ergonomics of the way we live now don't help,” Mokari says. “We're sitting most of the time, looking down at a screen.”
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, followed by migraines.
Migraine headaches, which can progress from tension, often have very specific triggers. People who get them might also feel nausea or be intensely averse to light, sounds or other stimuli.
To be sure, there are many other types of headaches, and some are caused by underlying medical conditions.
“You can get them when you're hungry,” Mokari says. “Some people get headaches when they're out in the sunlight, they're dehydrated a little bit. Some people have headaches after intercourse.”
When it comes to tension headaches, yoga breathwork and some restorative poses can offer relief, especially when they open the chest and relieve the neck and upper back. As a rule, gentle movements work better than intense, high-energy ones. And when your noggin is throbbing, stay away from strong twists, strong backbends, inversions like handstand or anything that puts tension on your neck.
Keep in mind that a regular yoga practice keeps stress at bay and improves posture, so it can prevent tension headaches altogether. Meanwhile, if you're looking for mercy when a headaches hits, instead of reaching for ibuprofen, try these:
1. Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend), supported
- Sit down, legs ahead. Place rolled blankets or a pillow under your knees. Place pillows on your front thighs and shins.
- Hinge forward from your hips without rounding your lower back. Rest your belly and chest on the padding over your front thighs. Rest your forehead, and drop your arms down.
- Stay several minutes, allowing your neck and back to release.
2. Matsyasana (fish pose), supported
- Place two rolled blankets parallel to each other and about a foot apart, then sit ahead of one blanket.
- Bend your knees and lie back, so that your shoulder blades rest across one blanket (it's perpendicular to your spine) and the other supports your neck.
- Place your arms between the two blankets and out to the sides, palms face up. Your shoulders should be on the ground, with your chin level. If your head tips back, unfurl the blanket under your neck a little so that the roll is smaller, and you can use the rest to raise the back of your head.
- Stay several minutes, allowing your shoulders and chest to release.
3. Savasana (corpse pose), with visualization
- Lie on your back, legs at least hip-width apart, with a pillow or rolled blanket under your knees. Allow your arms to drop to your sides, and close your eyes.
- Inhale to the count of three, and exhale to the count of three. With each exhale, mentally move your attention from your feet to your head, encouraging your muscles to release from your toes to your crown.
- Stay for as long as you'd like, breathing softly.
Learn more about yoga instructor and journalist Mitra Malek at mitramalek.com.