How to Head Off Tension Headaches

From tai chi to Pilates, easy moves that ward off head pain

Stop and think about how you're sitting at your computer right now. Are you slouching? Jutting your neck forward? Sitting with one leg tucked under? Or are you sitting up straight, with legs positioned at a 90-degree angle to the floor? Yeah, we didn't think so.

Well, add sitting up straight to the things you should have listened to your mother about. All that slumping and slouching may have you rubbing your temples in agony at the end of the day. While stress is the leading trigger of tension-type headaches, poor posture (along with clenching or grinding your teeth, a lack of exercise and fatigue) can also contribute to feeling like someone has put your head into a vise grip.

Hold Your Head up High
Ever try to hold an eight-pound bowling ball in one hand? That's what your neck has to do on a constant basis for your head, and it obliges without wobbling or saying, "Darn, this thing is so heavy, I've got to put it down." Bad posture puts your neck under even more pressure and, explains Robert S. Kunkel, MD, consultant in the Department of Neurology at the Cleveland Clinic and past president of the National Headache Foundation, "when you slouch, you cause the muscles to go into spasm, which hurts the neck and head."

·Get it straight. At your desk or in the car, sit with your back supported and your neck in a neutral position (as if you were balancing a book on your head). Your hips should be slightly above your knees. Sit close enough to the monitor or steering wheel that you don't have to bend forward.

·Get a move on it. Even if your job description reads "desk jockey," your fanny does not need to be permanently planted in a seat. About once an hour, take a break and walk around. Just be sure to take the time to stretch your body, especially gently rolling your neck and shrugging your shoulders. Bonus: You'll also feel less fatigued and more able to focus when you return to your work.

·Get to the core. Multiple exercise techniques, including Pilates, yoga and the Alexander Technique, improve the strength of the muscles in your middle (your core). A stronger core means a straighter you, so if slumping over the computer is contributing to your throbbing head, sign up for a local class or get a DVD workout. Yoga in particular is also a stress-buster, so you get a two-for-one benefit there.

Drop Your Jaw
Have an aching jaw and ear pain along with your headaches? You may be grinding or clenching your teeth together (and you may not even be aware of it if you're doing it in your sleep). Known as bruxism, this unconscious habit causes you to tighten the muscles on the side of your face, right up to the temples, Dr. Kunkel explains. (Try doing it deliberately right now. Doesn't feel so good, does it?) Those tense muscles not only get tender to touch; they can also trigger a tension-type headache.

·Open wide. Stress makes many of us clench our jaws. Try to relax your face and jaw muscles throughout the day. For instance: Open your mouth as far as possible and stretch your jaw as far as possible (although maybe not with a mouthful of food).

·Get on your guard. Talk to your dentist about wearing a splint or mouth guard at night. These guards are custom-made and fit over your teeth, and can prevent you from grinding or clenching your teeth while you sleep.

Trade a Pounding Head for a Pounding Heart
We all know that a daily walk, jog or swim can provide a host of health benefits, including a strong heart and healthy weight. It can also help prevent tension headaches. Regular physical activity, especially aerobic exercise, causes your body to release endorphins and other feel-good brain chemicals that block pain signals to the brain, Dr. Kunkel explains. Not only that, exercise is also a known stress reducer. (If you find that exercising makes your head feel worse, talk to your doctor. While workouts don't worsen tension headaches, they will increase pain for someone with a migraine, according to Dr. Kunkel.)

·Get moving. Walk, swim, weed your garden, ride a bike and otherwise get physically active for 30 minutes per day, five times a week. If you're pressed for time, you can break up your exercise into three 10-minute sessions and still benefit.

·Go with the flow. Tai chi, an ancient Chinese mind-body technique, may hold particular benefit for headache sufferers. A recent study found that after about four months of practicing the flowing movements of this ancient exercise form, patients reported significantly less headache pain than they'd experienced before. (They also found a host of other benefits: more energy, greater social functioning and improved emotional and mental well-being.)

·Sleep on this. If those aren't enough reasons to get you going, keep in mind that regular exercise also promotes a good night's sleep, which is crucial for preventing headaches over the short and long haul, according to Dr. Kunkel.

Try This! Is your daily car commute giving you a headache? Improve your posture while driving: Set your rearview mirror in a position that forces you to sit up straighter while you drive. —Julie Evans

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