Our brain keeps our stiff muscles contracted even while we're asleep
While we are all reacting differently to the pandemic and lockdown, I'm hearing more and more often of people having headaches. I've had a few myself, and I've rarely had them before.
Aside from underlying medical conditions, it seems likely that the most common cause is muscular tension in reaction to stress.
Speaking personally, I had a blood test 2 weeks ago and visited my local GP for the results. All perfect, he said. I took the opportunity to ask about headaches, and I mentioned that I'd never suffered from them in the past.
He asked me two questions:
He then felt the muscles around my shoulders and the base of my neck. "Tight as a rock", he proclaimed. "That's most likely your problem".
My doctor was referring to a common cause of tension headaches which is rooted in the neck, resulting from muscle tension and trigger points.
The brain continues to keep stiff muscles contracted
The stress we might feel during this unsettling time translates into stiffness at the base of our neck, and that reflects in headaches. But before you get stressed about potentially having stress, the cause could also likely be something very different from stress.
More of us are working from home, and even if we are not able to work, we are spending more time in front of computer and TV screens.
A common cause of neck pain is just plain old muscle strain. This strain, or tiredness, is caused by other muscles exhausting their endurance while trying to cope with incorrect posture.
Imagine holding one arm out in front of you for an hour. Could you do it? Most likely not. Your muscles have the strength but lack the endurance to hold your arm out for that long.
The muscles trying to hold your head in an unbalanced position become exhausted, and in giving up, they transfer an excess load to complementary muscles in your lower neck muscles. This, in turn, strains those muscles.
For example, if we are leaning forward in our chairs while working at our computer, then we will start to feel a stiff neck.
A stiff neck is usually caused by complementary muscles weakening over time as a result of the continuous load caused by poor posture. In this case, your neck muscles stay contracted or partly contracted for an extended period.
In fact, the brain continues to send nerve signals telling the muscle to contract even when the muscle is no longer needed for movement, i.e. when you are asleep. This explains why you wake up with a stiff neck and a "reflected" headache.
This signalling from your brain to the muscles can last for several hours or days. The longer your muscle remains contracted, the more muscle stiffness and pain you'll feel.
Of course, posture is not the only cause, but it is a likely cause as we are spending more time in poor ergonomic settings at home.
Medically, muscle "stiffness" is as vague as "pain"
Interestingly, it is not clear cut what "stiffness" actually is. It may be more biological, or more psychosomatic, depending on the person. One physiological reason for stiffness is that stress triggers our nervous system to constrict our blood vessels, which results in reduced blood flow to the muscles.
If your muscles are already tired - as in your neck from poor posture - this reduced blood flow will affect those muscles more than your other less tired muscles. Your neck muscles will then feel tight.
Do this to start relieving your neck pain and headaches
The easiest way to avoid neck pain related to poor posture is to keep your neck and shoulders square, your head above your backbone, and either move your chair forward or bring your materials closer to you. If you slouch to get closer, you could trigger neck stiffness and then headaches.
If necessary redesign your workstation. Simply raising your computer monitor or obtaining a document stand will reduce repeated head tilting that can strain the occipital muscles.
In addition, here are two easy at-home treatments to relieve your accumulated neck tension:
You can address the root cause of your stress by getting outside for a walk or run as often as you can, or finding other ways which help you relax such as meditation.
See Four Reasons That You Should Start Running Now Even If You Have Never Run Before, and
Avoid these common foods associated with headaches - feel any difference?
You may also be surprised to know that some common foods have been found to be associated with headaches.
In normal times these may not affect you at all. But if you have been having headaches for a while during the pandemic then you may now be a little more sensitive to these foods in relation to headaches.
It's easy to experiment - just drop them from your diet for a week and see if your headaches reduce.
For example, in one experiment where patients gave up common foods for 5 days, researchers reported "a dramatic fall in the number of headaches per month, 85% of patients becoming headache-free."
The most common everyday foods causing reactions were wheat (78%), orange (65%), eggs (45%), tea and coffee (40% each), chocolate and milk (37%) each), beef (35%), and corn, cane sugar, and yeast (33% each).
Some reports indicate that foods such as chocolate, cheese, cow's milk, eggs, and red wine may be triggers for migraine headaches.
I wish you well and that your neck strain eases, and your headaches. Take care
I'm off to find some tennis balls and a sock!
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