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Muscle Strength Helps Headaches

By on May 11, 2015

Strength training might help prevent tension headaches, or at least reduce their pain, according to a small Danish study. 

Researchers found that neck and shoulder muscles were up to 26% weaker in people with regular tension headaches, compared to those without. They also saw strength imbalances between sets of muscles that hold the head straight.

“In order to be able to treat tension-type headache patients non-pharmacologically . . . It is very important to work towards a further understanding of muscle-skeletal impact on tension-type headaches,” lead author Bjarne K. Madsen, a physiotherapist at the Danish Headache Center in Glostrup, said by email.

Previous studies have found that muscle strength and weakness were associated with tension-type headaches, Madsen and his colleagues note in the journal Cephalalgia. More work is needed to determine whether the muscle weakness is a cause or effect of this most common type of headache.

People with tension-type headaches may feel like they have a tight band wrapped around their head but with less pain than is felt from cluster headaches or migraines, which tend to strike one side of the head. Cluster headaches are often accompanied by sinus congestion or runny nose, while migraines cause throbbing, moderate-to-severe pain and sometimes nausea and/or vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound.

The study compared 60 adults with tension headaches to 30 healthy individuals. The patients had experienced a headache on eight or more days out of 30, with no more than three migraines. 

The participants’ neck extensor muscles were tested when they leaned their heads back. Neck flexor muscles were tested when they bent their heads forward. The strength of the trapezius muscle running down the back of the neck into the shoulder was also tested.

The healthy people in the study had 26% stronger neck extension than those with tension-type headaches, but there was only a slight difference between groups in neck flexor strength. As a result, the ratio of extension and flexion strength was 12% larger in the healthy comparison group.