Stretches and Exercises for Headaches – Quick Relief!

Experiencing a headache or migraine can be horrible. The intense pain that people feel can last from minutes to weeks. Many people experience the symptoms of a headache or migraine. Four million people visited the emergency room in 2016 due to a migraine. This can be a debilitating factor and inhibits most people from going about their normal day. There are many distinct types of headaches with multiple causes. Today we will discuss the diverse types of headaches, their most likely causes, and how to resolve them using cervicogenic exercises and stretches.

Types of headaches

People experience headaches and migraines differently. The most common are of the following:

  1. Tension-type headaches
  2. Migraine
  3. Cluster headaches
  4. Trigeminal neuralgias

Tension-type headaches

Tension-type headaches are most common in females and most patients report no nausea or vomiting. The exact cause of these headaches is unknown but thought to be caused by stress or neurological overload. Increase in muscular contractions from the neck and face can begin patients already debilitating symptoms and progress. Anxiety, depression, and stressful lifestyles are the largest contributing factor. Symptoms of these headaches include chronic presentation (daily), includes the entire head and neck pain, sensitivity to light or sound, lasting 25 mins to a week, and is mild/moderate in intensity. These types of headaches can be overwhelming.


Migraines are 2-3x more common in females than males. It is thought that migraines have a large genetic, vascular, and/or neurological involvement. These can start at any age but often has onsets in childhood or young adulthood. There are many triggers to migraines.

Some of the most common causes of migraines are caffeine, alcohol, menses, stress, sleep, and weather changes. Symptoms of migraines include 4-72 hours in presentation, sensitivity to light and/or sound, nausea, and vomiting, can occur with/without an aura, and usually is unilateral.

Migraines are difficult for most people as they can presently differently last for different periods of time; physical therapy for migraines can be very effective.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are another classification of headaches that are less common and occur mostly in men. Cluster headaches are unusual as they only occur at certain times and are very episodic in nature. It is thought to stem from abnormal activity in the hypothalamus and autonomic nervous system. They often occur at night and can also be caused by stressful events. These normally presents with unilateral headaches, hyperhidrosis (facial sweating), miosis, drooping of upper eyelid, and/or watery eyes. They occur frequently at a specific time of year or season, lasts >5 minutes, continuous and penetrating pain, and normally occurs in the same location.

Trigeminal neuralgia

Trigeminal neuralgia is most common in women over the age of 50 years old. This is caused by a stimulation of the trigeminal nerve as it exits through the upper cervical spine. This nerve splits into three main areas:

  1. Opthalmic Nerve
  2. Maxillary Nerve
  3. Mandibular Nerve

Each of these nerves are responsible for sensory or motor stimulation to a certain area of the brain and are involved with Trigeminal neuralgia. Symptoms are more common to be unilateral and can last from a few seconds to multiple minutes. There is also thought to be a large upper cervical involvement with this diagnosis as this is where the nerves exit. It is important to identify which areas you are having specific symptoms with.

How to fix your headache

Now that we know the most common types of headaches/migraines and their typical causes. Let us talk about how to relieve them! First, if you feel your symptoms starting, try to eliminate distractions or the root cause. For example, if light makes your symptoms worse try sitting in a dark room or lay on your back with a towel over your eyes. Secondly, using ice on your neck or over your eyes can help eliminate any throbbing or consistent pain. With this, a heating pad to the back of your neck while seated or lying down may ease tension type symptoms. Thirdly, massage to your temporalis and sub occipitals using a tennis or racquetball will assist with any pinpoint tenderness. Your sternocleidomastoid and upper trapezius are also large triggers for most patients, so be sure to check for tenderness in these areas. Lastly, completing exercises such as shoulder depressions, temporomandibular active range of motion, and chin tucks will improve blood flow and promote desensitization to the area.

Here is 2 minutes to relieve your headaches:

Eliminate distractions

Eliminating stressful stimuli, bright lights, and noise from your surroundings can go a long way to finding relief. It can be worth it to take a moment, relax, and breathe. Meditation helps in this role as well.

Use cold packs or heating packs

Heat or ice packs for headaches, applied to the location of the pain, have been shown to relieve headache pain severity. Whether to choose hot or cold therapy depends on personal preference. Choose whichever you find more pleasant and relieving.

Self-massage for headache

Massage therapy works particularly well for tension headaches. Start by applying pressure and massaging your forehead and work outwards towards your temples. You can work back over your head until you find spots that provide relief. Massaging the bridge of the nose, the cheeks and jawline tend to help as well.

We will likely cover these and other massage techniques (such as using a tennis ball) in another post. If you’re wanting a good visual, here’s a video on how to self massage for headaches.

Exercises for headache relief

You may not have been aware, but there are exercises that tend to provide headache relief as well. Headaches are often a result of (or aggravated by) tension in the musculature in the head, neck, and shoulders. Here are a few exercises to try:

Bilateral shoulder depressions

Sit or stand with a straight, upright spine, with your hands relaxed. Gently squeeze your shoulder blades together as if trying to grab a pencil between them. Once you’ve squeezed your shoulder blades backward, move them down your back as if trying to “put them in your back pockets”. Maintain an upright spine, hold for a few seconds, and relax.

Temporomandibular active range of motion

Release of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) can go a long way towards relieving headaches. Relax your face and try to let go of all tension in the jaw. Slowly move the jaw forward, backward, and side-to-side. Do 10 repetitions each direction, holding the stretch for a couple seconds on each repetition.

Chin tucks

Chin tucks are one of the most simple neck stretches for headaches – a simple exercise that can pay big dividends when it comes to relieving headache pain. Start by sitting (or standing) tall, imagining that you are trying to extend the crown of your head toward the ceiling. With a couple fingers, gently press on your chin as if you’re trying to give yourself a double chin. While doing this, continue to extend your head toward the ceiling as in the video below.

Next Steps

We hope you’re able to get some reduced pain from these suggestions. Of course, these are not the only exercises for headaches that one could try. If you experience pain or discomfort while completing these exercises, we recommend consulting with a medical provider or physical therapist to address possible contributing symptoms. If you have any questions or would like to set up a consultation, please reach out to us! We would love to hear from you.

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