What do you do when you get a headache or a migraine? Do you reach for your pain medication? If you get migraines, your doctor might prescribe one medication for relief and one for prevention, and you might also take an over-the-counter pain remedy. Your doctor has advised, as you’ve learned from experience, that it’s best to take medication sooner rather than later, before your migraine escalates and you lose a whole day, bedridden in a darkened room, unable to move or function normally.
But problems can arise when you take acute or symptomatic pain relief medication ten to fifteen times per month on a regular basis. You end up with a condition called medication-overuse headache, characterized by steady daily pain. It’s alarming to learn that the medications you rely on for relief could cause stronger and more frequent pain. At the same time, it’s difficult to imagine that other solutions could be effective.
For almost fifty years, I’ve used my unique touch therapy to stop people’s headaches and migraines on-the-spot, and my mission is to help headache sufferers transform their pain. Most people are unaware of their bodily tension and how it contributes to their headaches — and because migraine is triggered by a series of neurochemical changes, they don’t connect migraine with bodily tension.
The good news is if you regularly soften and ease out your upper body tension and tightness, you can transform your pain and prevent your headaches and migraines from occurring. All the tools you need are at-hand: your posture, breathing, touch, and awareness.
- Align Your Spine: Aligned posture is like giving yourself a massage from the inside. When your head is carried forward when working at your computer or your neck is bent when texting, your shoulder and neck muscles and fascia (the tissue that surrounds muscles) contract, which produced tightness and pain over time. By aligning your spine and stacking your body, you remove those contractions.
Here’s how: Whether sitting or standing, start with your feet hip-distance apart, giving yourself a good base. Bring your head over your shoulders, keeping your chin down, and open your chest. Your ears, shoulders, and hips should form a vertical line when viewed from the side. If your shoulders and neck are built up in a misaligned position, it can be difficult to align your head with your shoulders at first. In this case, you will need to couple postural alignment with gentle self-massage to release that buildup over time.
- Breathe Lower: Take a deep breath. What happened? Chances are that your breath was centered high in your chest, making your chest and shoulders rise and your neck tighten. Chest breathing is caused by stress and not knowing how to breathe effectively. Each time you breathe into your chest, the muscles and fascia that contribute to your headaches contract. Instead, breathing that is centered lower in the body keeps the upper body from tightening with each breath and also reduces stress and headaches.
Here’s how: Place one hand on your belly, below your navel, focusing your attention on your belly and your palm. Rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth, and let your teeth slightly part to relax your jaw. Breathe easily in and out through your nose. As you inhale, let your belly round out and feel it push slightly into your hand. As you exhale, feel your belly and your hand move closer to your spine.
- Loosen Shoulder and Neck Tension: Shoulder and neck squeezes are a great place to start. Do them daily to prevent buildup of tightness and tension. Keep doing the steps you just learned of aligning your spine and breathing lower as you work on your body. Otherwise you’ll create tension at the same time you’re trying to alleviate it.
Here’s how: Prepare your hands by making puppy dog paws: Place your upper arms next to your sides, bend your forearms up at the elbows, and flop your hands over as if mimicking a begging puppy dog. Next, squeeze-and-hold your shoulder: Extend your bent arm across your chest. Grab a hunk of the opposite shoulder ridge between the flats of your fingers and the heel of your hand. Squeeze and pull up slightly toward the ceiling as you take several slow breaths. Release your grip and move to another spot as you work the ridge out to your arm and back to your neck. Shake out your hand and arm when they get tired. Switch sides and repeat. Do the same move on the back of your neck, but gently pull back away from the spine instead of up.
- Be Mindful: Awareness, or mindful attention, is the glue that holds your practices together.
Here’s how: Focus your attention on your body when you practice. Your efforts will be more effective because you will be able to: pinpoint your pain, know when your body softens, and build familiarity with the territory, so you can produce those effects again.
As with many things, the hardest part is making the commitment and remembering to doing them. Make these practices a part of your daily routine, and watch your headaches transform!
Jan Mundo is a certified massage therapist, Master Somatic Coach, and author of The Headache Healer’s Handbook. In 1970, she developed a hands-on headache and migraine therapy and a mind-body relief and prevention program in 1992. She has held programs at medical centers, universities, and corporations, including NY Headache Center, Kaiser Permanente, Stanford University, and Apple. She lives in New York City, and her website is www.theheadachecoach.com.
Based on the book The Headache Healer’s Handbook. Copyright © 2018 by Jan Mundo. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com.