Have you ever noticed that headaches ‘bog’ you down at your most stressful or busiest times? This can best be explained by their multifactorial nature. Headaches are usually triggered by a build up of multiple factors and rarely stem from a single cause. Factors can include cervical joint subluxation (misalignment of the vertebrae in the upper spine), stress, hormone fluctuations and poor lifestyle. Therefore, while it can be easier in the short term to reach for the pain-relieving medications, this will only provide temporary relief while underlying issues remain unresolved. Identifying factors which play a role in triggering your headaches is important to ensure that you can minimise their ability to perpetuate headaches in the future.


Stress can be a predominant underlying factor leading to the trigger of headaches. During stressful times, it is common for us to subconsciously tense our muscles and adopt poor postures. Range of movement in the cervical (neck) region of the spine is reduced particularly with a forward head posture (Jull et al., 2008). Resultantly, a decrease in muscle strength and endurance may occur (Jull et al., 2008). It is no surprise then to learn that the presence of musculoskeletal pain (especially in the neck) is commonly associated with headaches (Jull et al., 2008). Sitting at a desk studying, looking down at your phone or computer for extended periods of time can contribute to such postures. Even tensing of jaw muscles subconsciously or grinding teeth during your sleep can contribute. Consequently, a vicious cycle of musculoskeletal issues can result including muscle tension, hyperactivity and spasm, which further perpetuates the cycle of muscle tightness.


Other lifestyle factors including beverage intake and dehydration, poor diet, sleep patterns and exercise can be just as important in contributing to headaches. In addition, when you throw into the mix hormone fluctuations (particularly for women), there are often enough contributing factors to reach that ‘threshold’ to trigger a headache.


There are a plethora of options to help address such lifestyle factors in an attempt to reduce the buildup of factors contributing to headaches. Simple methods such as staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water and eating healthy, nutritious food may assist in staving off headaches by minimising the effect of such contributing factors.


Learning to manage and therefore minimise stress could also be pivotal in reducing the frequency of headaches. Simple diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are simple but effective methods to reduce stress and muscle tension. Such methods can be easily taught by your physio and practiced at home. Managing stress through breathing exercises, relaxation training and stress management training have been shown to reduce migraine symptoms by 32-49% (Sierpina, Astin & Giordano, 2007).


Manual therapy provided by physiotherapists may also be vital in the management of headaches through working primarily to release tight muscles caused by poor posture. A study assessing the effectiveness of soft tissue and neural mobilisation techniques in the management of tension-type headaches found that a combination of these treatments over 4 weeks was effective, especially for patients with frequent episodic tension-type headaches (Ferragut-Garcías et al., 2017). Therefore, receiving physio treatment may be a proactive method of managing headaches through reducing the degree of musculoskeletal issues (including muscle tension). Working on simple exercises prescribed by your physio at home between treatments can also assist in minimising muscle tightness and increasing range of movement.


Another method to reduce stress, improve posture and loosen tight muscles is undertaking exercise such as walking, jogging, cycling, yoga or pilates. Or better yet, why not try one of our new classes at Good Physio Glenelg? We’ve got you covered with a range of classes officially launching in January 2018. Physiotherapist Aneeka runs the ‘Loose + Limber’ class here at the clinic every Thursday. Consisting of mat based pilates and yoga exercises, designed for anyone who needs to stretch, release muscle tightness and reverse poor posture, it’s especially beneficial for those who are stuck at a desk all day. Or if you're a mum with a bub, why not try out the new ‘Lullabies and Exercise’ class. Also led by Aneeka, this class combines strength/resistance work through mat pilates and yoga poses designed to reverse the effects changing nappies and hunching over to feed for example. Where possible, the babies are also involved in the class.


So the next time you get a headache and go to reach for the short term fix, perhaps consider the benefits of making alterations to your lifestyle, learning techniques to manage stress and the ways in which your physio can assist. 

-Steph Edwards


Ferragut-Garcías, A., Plaza-Manzano, G., Rodríguez-Blanco, C., Velasco-Roldán, O., Pecos-Martín, D., Oliva-Pascual-Vaca, J., Llabrés-Bennsar, B., & Oliva-Pascual-Vaca, Á. (2017). Effectiveness of a Treatment Involving Soft Tissue Techniques and/or Neural Mobilization Techniques in the Management of Tension-Type Headaches: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 98, 211-9. doi:10.1016/j.apmr.2016.08.466

Jull, G., Sterling, M., Falla, D., Treleaven, J., & O’Learly, S. (2008). Whiplash, Headache and Neck Pain: Research-Based Directions for Physical Therapies. Elsevier Limited.

Sierpina, V., Astin, J., & Giordano, J. (2007). Mind-Body Therapies for Headache. Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 76(10). Retrieved from 


Tristan Chai