A recent study of a simple resistance exercise program for the neck and shoulders, in office workers who complained of weekly headaches (HAs), showed an approximately 50% reduction in HA frequency vs. a weekly health education control group. The exercise groups were 2 minutes or 12 minutes of daily exercise. The remaining HAs were no different in terms of intensity or duration of pain.

HAs are the most commonly reported pain problem. If brief exercise could have such a dramatic effect on HA frequency, it should be considered as a standard intervention for all office workers who appear to have muscle tension type headaches. However it is not clear why neck and shoulder exercise reduce HA frequency. It is understandable that exercising muscles that are tense and stiff from repetitive strain, for example bending your head and neck over a desk for hours at a time, could help relax stiff and tense muscles. which can cause back and neck pain.  But just performing an action to address HAs on a daily basis may make you more aware of the circumstances surrounding a episode. Since headaches are frequently brought on with emotional stress, being more aware of and addressing stress has been shown to reduce HA frequency through various interventions.

Even though self-awareness can help you, knowing what you are thinking and feeling is not as easy to achieve as one might imagine. Many of my patients while doing their prescribed exercises report becoming aware of unsettling feelings and sometimes divulge situations that have been troubling to them. There are many thoughts and feelings that are upsetting for us to acknowledge. It may be difficult to admit that you are angry or resentful towards someone you love or someone on whom you depend for your livelihood. We may be uncomfortable or ashamed to admit to feelings of fear or envy. Repressing or denying thoughts and feelings can lead to increases in muscle tension with resultant headaches, and to symptoms of anxiety.

If it’s all about repressed feeling why don’t all the headaches or anxiety symptoms disappear when we become more conscious? H.L. Menken said that “there is always a simple solution for a complex problem, and it is usually wrong. “ Exercise addresses a different reason for your neck pain than struggling with uncomfortable emotions. When it comes to persistent pain problems, a multi- faceted approach which addresses multiple sources of discomfort may provide the most relief.

~ Norman Marcus, MD
Norman Marcus Pain Institute, New York NY
 
“Your New York City Doctor”
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