Exercises for Tension Headaches

by Kimberly Rienecke

About Kimberly Rienecke

Kimberly Rienecke started her career as a health and fitness writer by working for various websites. She is a certified orthopedic physician assistant and an ACE-certified personal trainer. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in biology from Towson University.


Up to 78 percent of people suffer from tension headaches, reports the University of Maryland Medical Center. Tension headaches arise when muscles in your neck, shoulders and scalp contract or tighten, causing pain. Different types of exercises and activities can both treat and prevent this type of headache.

Susceptibility to Tension Headaches

A tension headache often begins as a dull pain felt at the base of your head or neck, and then moves to your scalp and temples. The muscles in your neck and shoulders may also be tense and painful. Chronic tension headaches can make your muscles tighter and tighter over time, which in turn increases your risk for developing future tension headaches.

Activities to Relieve Tension Headaches

Because stress is a common source for tension headaches, many people benefit from specific activities to relieve stress. Cognitive therapy -- typically performed by a trained professional -- relieves stress through identification of negative thoughts related to the precipitating stress, and replacing the negative cognitions with positive thoughts. Relaxation techniques -- muscle relaxation, mind relaxation, meditation, deep breathing, rhythmic breathing, visualized breathing or guided imagery -- also relax your muscles and prevent pain-producing tension.

Headache Journal

Keeping a headache journal can help you identify triggers for your tension. When a headache occurs, assess your environment, thoughts and posture for clues to causes of your pain. Possible triggers include poor posture, stress, fatigue, eyestrain, anxiety, depression, cold environments, alcohol, caffeine, sleeping position, head or neck injuries, arthritis and certain medications.

Stretch to Relieve Stress

Neck and shoulder stretches are useful for loosening tight muscles. Some good stretches to try are the neck rotation, neck flexion, scapular retraction, chin tuck, shoulder shrug, trapezius stretch and upper back stretch. To do neck rotations, turn your head all the way to the right as if you are looking over your shoulder. Hold for one to two seconds. Then slowly turn your head all the way to the left and hold for one to two seconds. Repeat this 10 times. If you suffer from chronic tension headaches, take a break several times a day to do stretching exercises. Always use correct posture when sitting and standing, especially if you spend most of your day sitting at work.

When to Seek Help

Seek immediate medical attention if you have greater pain than you usually experience with headaches, changes in vision or speech, weakness in your arms or legs, difficulty walking or worsening of symptoms when you lie down. Notify your doctor if you experience any changes in the pain or pattern of your headaches, or if your current medications do not provide relief or you are pregnant.

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This article reflects the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jillian Michaels or JillianMichaels.com.