How Sprained Muscles Can Cause Your Headaches

Are you getting regular headaches with no apparent cause?

– Feeling stressed?

Well, it might put your mind at ease knowing that the muscles in your neck and the back of your head could be the culprit, rather than anything sinister going on inside your head.

However, headaches can take a significant toll on your mental and physical health. In addition, they make stressful situations even worse because you’re also dealing with the pain and associated discomfort caused by the headache. 

But let’s dig a little deeper and explore the symptoms of muscle strain headaches (or tension headaches) specifically and find out whether muscle strain might be the cause of your headaches…

The most common type of headache we see in the Intecore PT clinic is a tension headache. These types of headaches can be a result of muscle strains, tears, or whiplash injuries. Because the body tends to tense up in response to pain and inflammation – or when the “fight or flight” stress response system is triggered – as a cloak of protection. 

Tension headaches, as the name implies, are usually caused by stress along with chronically tense muscles. They can be sore but, unlike other headaches – like migraines, tension headaches do not cause nausea, vomiting, or light sensitivity.

Plus, rather than a throbbing headache, a tension headache typically presents as steady and constant pain and occurs on both sides. They can happen every day when you’re undergoing periods of intense stress. They can occur as a direct result of injury, whiplash, or muscle strain, or occasionally out of the blue for no apparent reason. 

Why Does Muscle Strain Cause Headaches?

The exact cause of this type of headache is still unknown. However, doctors think that your surrounding environment or genetics could play a role in developing tension-type headaches.

Also, muscular contractions in the neck or head can contribute to suffering from this kind of headache. Overextension of the neck muscles in the gym, during sports, or in the case of whiplash injuries can also trigger them.

Some people are predisposed to suffer from tensions headaches when they experience stressful events or have an extremely hectic day.

However, the underlying root cause that brings the headache on is still probably likely to be tense, overused, or strained muscles that you’re not consciously aware of. 

What Are The Symptoms Of Muscle Strain Headaches? 

The most common symptoms of tensions headaches or headaches caused by strained muscles are:

  • The headache comes on gradually 
  • Both sides of your head hurt 
  • Pain is generally mild to moderate
  • The pain may arise at the back of your neck or head  
  • There is a dull pain that feels like a vice or band is around your head 

As you can see, the symptoms related to tension and muscle strain headaches are pretty vague. This vagueness is why it’s essential to get a professional to diagnose the cause of your specific symptoms – as they can mimic other medical issues.

So, before you try to treat your headaches at home, we recommend you consult your physician or a Physical Therapist to find the actual cause.

Some other common causes of the above headache symptoms are:

  • Toothache
  • Dehydration 
  • Problems with your eyesight
  • Viral/ sinus infection
  • Menstruation/ menopause/ hormonal imbalance 

How We Diagnose Tension Headaches

We diagnose the cause of your headaches based on your symptoms, a physical evaluation, and your health history. For an accurate diagnosis and speed up this process, we need to get as much information from you as possible.

Some of the questions we may ask you during a headache consultation include: 

  • Where is the location of your headache?
    • Where does it hurt?
  • What do the headaches feel like? 
    • A dull ache?
    • A throbbing pain?
    • Stabbing pain like an ice pick?
    • Is it constant? Intermittent?
  • When do the headaches start? Does anything trigger them?
  • How long do they last? 
  • Does sitting upright or changing positions cause a headache? 
  • Have there been any noticeable changes in your personality or behavior?
  • Have you suffered from any head, neck, or spinal injury? 
  • Do you suffer from stress or high blood pressure?
  • How well do you sleep?

Based on our evaluation, we may also recommend additional tests. This cautionary extra step helps make sure no other medical issues are causing your symptoms before we move on to treating your headaches safely. 

The tests may include:

Getting a blood test: Laboratory tests can rule out other medical issues that may be causing your headaches, such as anemia, thyroid issues, infection, or a hormonal imbalance.

An X-ray of the sinus region: This imaging test checks for infection, congestion, or other issues in your sinuses that might be contributing to your headaches and need treatment.   

MRI test: In an MRI test, magnets and radio waves create detailed images of the structures and organs within the body. Although it’s unlikely in most cases, we may recommend an MRI of the head, neck, or spine to investigate the cause of your headaches if you present with specific symptoms.    

CT scan: In this type of scan, a computer takes x-rays to get a detailed image of any body area that includes organs, bones, fat, and muscles. In comparison to X-rays, a CT scan is much more detailed. In the case of headaches, we’re most likely going to recommend a CT scan of your head and neck. 

How To Treat Tension and Muscle Strain Headaches

The focus of treatment with muscle strain or tension-type headaches is to prevent a reoccurrence of the headaches.

Reducing stress and tension as much as you possibly can is helpful. Of course, we know that is easier said than done sometimes.

But if you can, that’s great. We also recommend the following:

  • Lack of sleep can trigger headaches. You can avoid this by following a set routine for sleeping and awakening at the same time every day
  • When the pain strikes, rest in a dark, quiet area of the house or office
  • Keep a food diary and avoid foods that trigger your headaches
  • Eat three meals a day with regular snacks to keep your blood sugar stable. Don’t skip meals, as this can trigger headaches too.
  • Take pain medication as prescribed by your physician.
  • Reduce stress levels with yoga, meditation, or massage
  • Get 30 minutes of gentle exercise every day (walking outside is perfect).

Generally, over-the-counter medicines like Advil or acetaminophen are adequate to relieve a headache.

However, overuse of these pills can be dangerous and cause adverse long-term health effects. So, please consult a doctor before dosing yourself regularly.

Or better still, consult a Physical Therapist who can help you get rid of chronic headaches and avoid pain pills permanently.

How To Prevent Tension And Muscle Strain Headaches

Knowing what brings on your headaches and taking steps to avoid those triggers goes a long way in preventing them from reoccurring.

Caffeine can be a trigger for some people, so it’s worth cutting it out for a couple of weeks to see whether it helps. But for you, it could be something completely different like tomatoes or shellfish.

Unfortunately, you don’t know until you start tracking your triggers.

If you’re prone to muscle tension, generalized anxiety, or you’re going through a period of intense stress, you can prevent headaches by booking a regular massage or by using heat therapy to relax your neck and shoulder muscles. 

Plus, all the good things – like going to bed early and sleeping at regular times, getting enough exercise, and eating a well-balanced diet can all help reduce the incidence of headaches.

But if your headaches are a common occurrence that you can’t seem to shift, specialist therapies could be beneficial. The types of therapy that can help with tension and muscle strain headaches include biofeedback, all forms of relaxation therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

All of which could help you reduce your stress levels and potentially prevent headaches.

But the #1 way to find and treat the root cause of headaches is with Physical Therapy. At Intecore PT, we specialize in treating chronic headaches – especially those caused by muscle strain.

Contact us now to book a free headache consultation. It’s completely free, and there is no obligation to book treatment. We can help you find the cause of your headaches, often inside 20 minutes. 

*When To See A Doctor

If you experience an unusually severe headache – worse than anything else you’ve experienced before, it could be symptomatic of a stroke or other serious health condition. In that case, you require immediate medical attention – especially if speech difficulties, paralysis, visual disturbances, dizziness, or nausea accompany the headache—call 911.

Andrew Vertson
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