Royalty-free photo from Dollar Photo Club

photo by Dollar Photo Club

by Alison Daniel

Tension Headaches

Almost all of us have experienced a headache from time to time and for many they are simply resolved by taking a pain killer and moving on. But for some people, headaches are more persistent than this and can occur frequently, causing pain and also affecting mood and energy levels. There are several different types of headaches including migraines and cluster headaches, however the most common form is a tension headache. These headaches affect up to 80% of the population and are most commonly caused by muscle tension and strain in the neck, upper back and shoulders. Other common causes are eye strain and jaw tension.

The Role of the Neck

Tension headaches most commonly occur as a result of excessive muscle tension in the shoulders, neck and upper back. This is often a postural compensation, which may occur as a result of prolonged sitting and screen time, spending lots of time on a bike or climbing (especially belaying), breast feeding/bottle feeding or lots of driving. If you can imagine putting up a tent then pulling the guy ropes as tight as possible to deform the tent – this is what happens to our necks. This causes compression of joints and discs, and overworked, tight muscles that are attempting to simply hold your head up so that you can see where you’re going! The body is truly amazing, which means that in attempt to keep you functioning as best it can, these compensations can reach all the way down into the pelvis and beyond (tight hip flexors anyone?!).

The Role of the Eyes

Your eyes play an incredibly important role in your day to day functioning. In headaches and neck pain they have two particularly important contributions to make. The first come courtesy of the visual (optical) righting reflex. This reflex “enables an animal to maintain the correct position of the head in space, by bringing about movements of the muscles of the neck and limbs”. In doing this it always makes sure your eyes are up and able to see what is going on around you so that quick decisions can be made about movement and balance. It is a priority, meaning the muscles of the neck are asked to work and compensate as needed, often in the face of pain, in order to keep the brain happy.

The second contribution that comes from the eyes is in the form of eye strain. The body’s attempt to compensate for the strain placed on the eyes leads to all sorts of postural changes such as hunching through the upper back to get close to the screen/book etc, pushing the chin forwards to help get closer and excessive contraction of the muscles of the face – like the ones that allow us to create wrinkles between our eyebrows.

The Role of the Jaw

Our jaw muscles are incredibly strong. In fact one of the main ones, called masseter, is the strongest muscle in the body for its weight! This allows us to chew, rip meat off a bone etc. Jaw tension however, has a huge impact on headaches due to the fact that the muscles of the jaw attach directly into the skull and around the face. Jaws can cause problems after traumatic events such as direct impacts, falls and prolonged or difficult dental work. They also contribute to headaches when you clench your teeth or grind. Often these are things we don’t even realize we do – pay attention to how your jaw feels when you wake up in the morning, or after you’ve been really concentrating on something..

How Osteopathy Can Help

As an osteopath I am trained to differentiate between headaches with common causes and those due to serious pathology. This involves undertaking a thorough history and physical examination. Once any serious concerns have been ruled out we can assess your individual structural balance and establish how your neck, eyes, jaw and general posture are contributing to your headaches. I work to address the underlying causes, and use hands on techniques such as massage, stretching, mobilization, craniosacral, myofasical release and more.

Treatment will also include advice about how you can help your body look after itself through ergonomic advice and stretches or exercises.

Osteopathic treatments are 1 hour for an initial assessment and 45 minutes for a follow up appointment. If you would like to book an appointment please contact Gaia Clinic, or if you would like to know more email me at