Today's Daily Tip
Yoga Cure for Headaches
In people who have rounded shoulders, a strong curve in the upper back, and a tendency to hold the head forward, like Carol, the "headache muscles" are held in a chronically foreshortened state. The more forward the head position, the more the muscles have to hold. Chronically overworked, the muscles become fatigued and go into spasm. Brofeldt compares this to a "charley horse" and says that just as we would stretch a calf muscle in spasm, we need to stretch the "headache muscles" to bring relief. We should retrain the upper back to extend, the chest to open, the shoulders to roll back and down, and the head to rest on the midline. A yoga practice which focuses on alignment and somatic awareness provides the tools for this retraining.
Being aware of our bodies can help us to perceive the onset of a headache and stop it early in its course. The first sign of a headache is often a tightening of the shoulders and neck (trapezius and semispinalis capitis). This fatiguing contraction of the "headache muscles" causes a reduction in blood flow to the vessels of the head. As the muscles contract, a reflex increase in sympathetic tone (the part of the nervous system activated during stress) shunts blood to the muscles, causing blood vessels to constrict in neighboring tissue. If the muscle is not relieved and is forced to further contract, the increase in intramuscular pressure may prevent blood and nutrients from reaching the starving muscle cells. If the cycle isn't broken, chemical mediators are released that forcefully dilate vessels, sharply augmenting the pain, and the headache becomes a migraine. Brofeldt believes that most migraines are due to this protective reflex against end-stage muscle ischemia, or muscles starved of blood.
Severe head pain, nausea, and sensitivity to light force the migraine victim to retreat into a state of complete rest. He or she must stop, lie down, and cease all stimulation and activity. The sufferer must fall into a deep, delta sleep, the kind that leads to complete relaxation, so that the painfully exhausted "headache muscles" can revitalize. In the delta stage of sleep, the muscles are totally relaxed and can be restocked with glycogen and nutrients. People who have interrupted sleep patterns or who do not get enough sleep will not have time to replenish.
Check Your Posture
Margaret Holiday, D.C., a chiropractor in Marin County, California, agrees with Brofeldt's observation that the most common cause of headaches is the forward head position, with rounded shoulders, a curved upper back, and the accompanying muscular tension. "Anything that distorts the spinal curves has the potential to cause headaches," she says. Holiday often sees alignment problems in the feet reiterate throughout the spine and result in tension in the neck and head.
Holiday notes that how we stand, sit, and work can affect headaches. A desk worker, for example, who sits in front of a computer screen much or all of the day, is at great risk for muscle tension. Often the computer screen is set too high, creating neck strain as the head is held forward and the upper back rounds. Placing the computer screen lower than the eyes, or angling it down, may help relieve strain. Also, the abdominal muscles lose tone with hours of sitting, which contributes to the inability to keep the spine in an upright, neutral position.