Mindful Neck Stretching for Tension Headache and Migraine Relief

Beginner YogaMigrainesNeck PainShoulder HealthYogaYoga Therapy
June 7, 2022

We’ve all “slept wrong,” I know I have. I end up spending the day constantly stretching and massaging my neck, only to find no relief and sometimes feel even more irritated. Oftentimes I end up with a tension headache and the day drags on with no end in sight, and I can’t wait to go to sleep to make it all feel better! Have you experienced this? This week’s post and video are all about mindful neck stretching. Of course we all know how to stretch our necks, but this video is a follow along to keep it slow and mindful. (I’ve also thrown in a few tricks to help) If you landed here from the video you’ll know this post is about the “why.” Why this mindful neck stretching works and the things to remember every time you go to stretch or massage your neck (or any other part of your body for that matter). If you’ve landed on this post from somewhere else, have a read first then go do the video practice.

What‘s the problem?

So to understand the why and the how, we need to know the what. The what here is relieving muscular skeletal pain. For this post it’s specifically about neck pain, but this can be applied to any part of the body. You might be thinking “but when I get a massage, and stretch, I definitely feel better.” Sure you do! And that’s because it’s done mindfully and slowly. Now think about those times when you stretch or self massage and it doesn’t bring you relief, like my example above. Why does this happen? Or if you suffer from chronic pain (or an autoimmune disorder) why can you never find relief? 

This leads us to the why. Why do we find relief when we physically touch or move something that’s in pain? Think the moment you touch something sharp or hot and you immediately use a hand to cover the spot. You apply pressure, pause, and maybe take a deep breath. In that moment you’re instinctively calming yourself down, moving from the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic (rest and digest). Depending on what happened you may move back into that flight or flight response – especially if it needs immediate medical attention – but it’s that moment of pause where we instinctively know how to pause and be present. 

But why doesn’t this always work?

Now back to our chronic, or irritated pain example. Why do we instinctively know how to calm ourselves in that moment of pain, but then find it’s not helpful over time? The initial calming touch can override a sharp or achy pain with something smooth (think like a hug) and feels safe. On the other hand continual touch (through massage or movement) is also continual stimulation of the nerves. Before I lose you… Have you ever been in a car with a kid that asks “are we there yet?” The first one might sound like “could you please tell me how long until we get there?” The second one might sound like “WHY AREN’T WE THERE YET?!” And time 2,953 sounds more like nails on a chalkboard. You get me? That’s a bit like what our brain and nerves are going through with constant stimulation (again through touch or movement).

If you’re asking “What movement?” keep reading otherwise skip to the how.

A good example is a stretch or quick movement to either move or pop the spine/neck. The first one feels satisfying. SO satisfying. The next few feel pretty good too. But eventually the good feeling lasts a fraction of a second and the desire to move or touch again might become automatic and reactive. Oftentimes you don’t even realize you’re doing it, or why you’re constantly moving.

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So how do I find relief?

Stop. Pause. Breathe. Then move with the breath focusing on your movement. That’s as simple as it gets. I do this with you through the video. We stop to pause, noticing what we feel, take a breath, and then move with our breath. When we stop and pause we give our brain time to notice and process the sensations we’re feeling. If we’ve been in a state of constant/chronic stimulation/pain our brain starts to expect the same experience (stimulation) whether it’s actually there or not. If you want to nerd out on the neuroscience behind this check out this book. If you want to relieve your neck pain or tension headache, or you just want to get a little movement in and increase your mobility watch this video. And if you want to learn more ways to live a better life with less pain, sign up for my newsletter below.

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Neck Stretches

Think you can do this on your own? I’m sure you can! Coming back to the video for guidance is always a good thing to do every once in a while, but until then below are a few tips. You can do this practice seated without support, seated up against a wall, seated in a chair, standing, or even lying down.

  1. Take a few deep breaths
  2. Notice how one side of your neck feels, and the other side
  3. Notice how the front side of your neck feels, and the back side
  4. With your breath move your spine one of the directions below (unless you have a physical spinal condition i.e. herniated disk or osteoporosis)
    1. Right ear towards right shoulder 
    2. Left ear towards Left shoulder  
    3. Up
    4. Down
    5. Rotate right
    6. Rotate left
  5. Hold for a few breaths.
  6. Try to relax all the muscles (except the ones helping you sit up straight)
  7. Return the head back to it’s starting position
  8. Pause and start back at step one

No matter what landed you here, mindful neck stretching is a small part of the whole. If you’ve just been experiencing neck soreness or irritation, maybe you have text neck, you may also need to strengthen the muscles of the neck (post coming soon). Chronic headaches and migraines your issue? Along with these stretches try yoga nidra. It’s a powerful way to help reduce these by providing a guided relaxation experience (which you can do in the dark on low volume). And if you just want to improve your posture (tech neck) try strengthening the middle and low back along with these stretches to find better balance. Check out the practices related to these posts below, and check back next week for more practices to help you live your best life.

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