Neck Pain and Headache: Exercises to Help You Manage

Headaches coming from the neck muscles, joints, and nerves are estimated to account for 20% of all recurrent headaches. Head pain originating from the neck is referred to as cervicogenic headache. This is often felt in the neck, back of the head, or around the eyes. Pain is mostly on one side of the head and neck. Neck movements or sustained postures, such as sitting at a desk, exacerbate the pain. Medications are mostly ineffective. Thankfully, research over the last 10 to 15 years shows exercise is effective for managing headaches.

Research Supports Exercise for Managing Headaches and Neck Pain

In 2010, researchers from Finland investigated the effectiveness of 3 different types of exercise programs in patients with cervicogenic headache. One group performed stretching and strengthening exercises for the neck and shoulders. The other group performed stretching and endurance exercises. The third group performed only stretching.

After 12 weeks, headaches decreased by 69% in the strengthening group, 58% in the endurance group and by only 37% in the stretching group. This study showed endurance and strengthening exercises, and not stretching exercises, are effective for managing headaches from the neck. The exercises which follow in this article are endurance and strengthening exercises which can easily be incorporated at home.

Deep Neck Flexor Exercises

The deep neck flexors are small muscles deep in the front of your neck. The longus coli and longus capitis are the two primary deep neck flexor muscles. The movement they are involved with is nodding the head as if you are saying “yes”. However, they also play a very important role in supporting the spine and controlling movement in all directions.

Research shows people with neck pain have small and poorly functioning deep neck flexor muscles. The craniocervical flexion exercise is first performed with the goal of improving endurance. After several weeks of building endurance of these muscles, the cervical flexion exercise is added to improve strength. Both of these exercises can be performed on the floor or flat on your bed.

Neck Extensor Exercises

The neck extensors are equally important for the rehabilitation of patients with neck pain and headache. These small deep muscles lie on the back of the neck.  They are active when lifting the head to look up but also play an important role is supporting the spine and head.

Changes in cervical extensor muscle size, structure, and function have been observed in people with neck pain. Muscle loss is often associated with a build-up of fatty tissue in the same area. Control and coordination of movement becomes impaired. This often results in difficulty picking up the head or changing positions. Similar to training the flexors, exercise is first performed with the goal of improving endurance. After several weeks of building endurance of these muscles, exercise is progressed to improve strength.

Final Thoughts on Exercise for Neck Pain and Headache

Neck pain and headaches can be debilitating and negatively impact your quality of life.  Not everyone with headaches has to suffer. These 4 exercises are only a small sample of the types of exercises that can help.  Meet with your physical therapist and get started on the road to recovery. Your physical therapist will continually assess your injury and progress your exercise program based on your goals. The objective is to decrease pain and give you your quality of life back as quickly as possible. Contact us today if you have headaches or neck pain or simply have questions about which treatments are right for you.

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