Headaches and Muscle Tension

Almost everyone has experienced some type of ache or pain in their head in their life.

Am I having a migraine or a headache?

Migraines are commonly more severe than headaches, but some migraines are surprisingly tame… so how do you know? Migraines are usually on one side of the head, include throbbing sensations, with light sensitivity or vision disturbances, and a neurological ache which radiates from the brain and not usually from head or neck muscles. Headaches often arise from muscle tension, tight painful muscles in the neck and head, on both sides of the head/neck, they cause pressure and tightness, with sensitivity to noise.


Is a headache always a tension headache?

If you are not experiencing neurological (brain) pain of a migraine, it is likely your headache is a tension headache caused by painfully-tense muscles in the arms, shoulders, upper back, neck, jaw, and/or head. Emotional stress also contributes to stress and adds tension in these areas.
The most common source of headache-causing muscle tension is the suboccipital muscle group at the back of the head. There are many different intensities of headaches ranging from severe to just annoying, none of which have serious consequences in the short term. When pain becomes more severe, consistent, and doesn’t respond to treatment, your headache is no longer just a headache. At this time, you should seek expert help in identifying other potential causes for your head pains.

Any of the physiotherapists at Leduc Physio can assess your symptoms, provide information about the cause(s), and treat your pain.


What other types of headaches are there?

Headaches can be primary (pain on their own) or secondary (symptom of another problem, ex. dehydration, hangover etc.). Tension-type headaches are more common than all other types of head pain combined. Here are other types of head pain which can occur.

  • Migraines; affect brain function, severe, one-sided head pain, 1 hr-3 days in length, smell intolerance, pattern of at least a few attacks.
  • Cluster headaches; very uncommon, extremely severe, eye-focused pains, usually centered around one eye (eye can leak, droop, and/or swell), people become agitated and restless, “cluster” because they occur in clusters of headaches over a few weeks or months with no headache symptoms following for weeks, months, or years.
  • Other primary headaches (which can ALSO be symptoms of other conditions)Stabbing headache- stabbing pains, usually occurring in eyes, temples or side of head
    • Cough headaches- caused by straining such as a cough or holding breath
    • Exertional headaches- occur during or after exercise.
    • Sex headaches- exactly what it sounds like.
    • Thunderclap headaches- sharp and severe pain in the head which happens suddenly and without warning.
    • Hypnic headaches- headaches which occur during sleep and cause waking.
  • Secondary headaches (headache is symptom of separate issue) can be caused by:
    • Anxiety or emotional stress
    • Post-concussion (Our physiotherapist Kim Hillier does concussion testing and treatment!)
    • Drug side effects (prescribed, over the counter, and recreational)
    • Chronic sinus inflammation
    • Dehydration
    • Dental/Jaw issues
    • Ear infections
    • Irritation from hats, helmets, goggles, or pony tails
    • Glaucoma



There are a number of ways to relieve tension headaches, each case is different and may need different treatment(s) for relief. Here are some of the ways to treat your tension headaches:

  • Relaxation and stress relief; increase rest and remove stress in your life. Maybe try something new for stress relief (yoga, meditation, exercise).
  • Hot or cold therapy; grumpy neck muscles usually prefer heat, but if heat makes you feel flushed or congested, try a cool washcloth or ice for the neck, jaw or face.
  • Specific exercises (stretching AND strengthening); stretching can relieve tension in tight aggravated neck and upper back muscles. Stretching alone is not as effective as strengthening upper back, neck and jaw muscles while including stretches and pain-free range of motion at the affected areas.
    Leduc Physio offers custom exercise therapy: private sessions with a personalized strength and stretching program created for you! Book NOW.
  • General exercise; unless exercise is the cause of your head pain, increasing your heart rate improves sleep and mood to decrease chances of getting regular headaches.
  • Massage; by massaging and releasing tension in the following areas, you can treat and prevent headaches. If these areas are difficult to reach yourself, let one of Leduc Physio’s registered massage therapists help!
    • Masseter; chewing and talking muscle of the jaw. If you are unsure how to massage these, our massage therapist, Pam Fouillard, does TMJ/Jaw massage!
    • Trapezius; big muscles at top of shoulder.
    • Cervical spine; muscles at top of spine, at base of skull.
    • Upper back. We know these are hard to get at, shepherd’s hooks are on sale this month and make targeting this area MUCH easier!
    • Scalenes; muscles at the sides of neck and throat.
  • Physiotherapy; a physiotherapist can release chronically tight and painful muscles which may be causing your headaches. They can also determine if there are other underlying issues which may be causing your headaches, and provide specific exercises to prevent headaches and pain from getting worse.
  • Over the counter pain killers; these are currently the most common treatment, but should not be used long term due to side effects.
  • Up-to-date prescription eye-wear; regular visits to your optometrist for updated prescription glasses or contacts will prevent eyes from straining.


If you have more questions about headaches, head pains, dizziness, or spinning, please call our front desk at (780) 980-5443, or send an email to info@leducphysio.ca.

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