The Ghostly Headache Pain
Suboccipital Muscles

Welcome to Purposeful Foam Rolling Blog:
Our purpose here is to help you understand what is causing your muscles to become tight stiff and sore, and the problems that can develop because of this tightness. We want to give you the knowledge and the tools so that you can take control of your self care.

This week we are talking about a group of muscles that are often overlooked as a major cause of headaches. These muscle are called the Suboccipital muscles.  Our goal here is to to help you have a better understanding of muscular causes of headaches. And to provide you with some self care techniques that can help you deal with them.

The Suboccipital muscles consist of four muscle located on both sides of the spine at the back of the neck.  Three of the muscles attach into the base of the skull. Those three run down to attach to the first two vertebrae of the spine of the neck.  The fourth muscle is different because it attaches only to the first and second vertebrae of the spine.

These muscles are very deep, and lay under several bigger muscles. This makes it very difficult to feel these muscles.  So we just want you to have a general idea of how to locate these muscles on your body. So place your finger in the middle of your spine on the back of your neck.    Move your hand so that your little finger is resting at the base of your skull. These four fingers are roughly the length of these muscles. Now move your fingers across the base of your skull stopping approximately an inch from each ear. That is the general location of the Suboccipital muscles. Realize what is draw on Mr. Mantie is much larger so you would be able to see them on the video.

What do these muscle do? These muscles help in the important and wonderful movement of the head. Movements such as nodding of the head, rotation of the head, and side bending of the head. The Suboccipital muscles play an important role in these movements.

The Suboccipital muscles get tight mainly from the way we hold our bodies while we perform our daily activities. They also get tend to get tighter when the bigger muscles of the back of the neck get tight. If we think about the way we hold our bodies during the day we can get a better idea of why these muscles get tight. Especially, when we are in these positions for hour on end and day after day. For example:  Holding our head in a downward position, such as when we are texting, using computers, reading, or playing board games. Holding our head in an upward position such as when we are watching TV on the floor, looking at a TV on the wall, or painting the ceiling. Or turning our head to the side and holding it there for extended periods such as watching a show from a side balcony, looking out a air plane window or a car window.  Finally, cold weather or cold air blowing on the back of the neck can really aggravate these muscle and create very painful headaches.

All of these activities can make these muscle very tight. This tightness over time can limited the nodding of the head, tilting the head to the side and in rotating the head to look left or right.  If these muscles continue to get tighter they can develop hyper-irritated points in the muscle called Trigger Points.

Trigger Points
Trigger points are  hyper-irritated points that develop in very tight muscles. These trigger points create pain patterns that can show up in other areas of the body. The Suboccipital muscles typically develop two trigger points.   These trigger points can cause pain that starts at the back of the skull and radiates around the side of the head to the eyes. This pain is described as deep and intense. They are often referred to as migraines.  These headaches can show up any time but seem to increase in frequency when laying the head down on a pillow. Many People who have experienced these types of headaches tend to poking around the base of the skull with their fingers trying to find relief. Unfortunately, they seldom reduce the headache but often find the area to be very tender.

Because these muscle are located around the spine at the  back of the head you always want to get clearance from your doctor before doing any self care.  Always take your time and be gentle. Also if these muscles are really fired up you may want to have a therapist work the area first to help reduce symptoms and help move the process along.

Self Care:
Now since, these muscle are under the bigger muscle of the shoulders, we will need to be work from the shoulders to the back of the skull.  We will be using a foam ball which is a great tool to gently work this area. Starting on one side. Place the foam ball between the shoulder blade and the spine. Place the fingers of the nonworking hand on the center of the spine to act as a guide for the foam ball.  Now place you legs about two feet from the wall. You may have to play with this distance a bit to get it right. Bend and straighten your legs to move the foam ball up and down ten to fifteen times. The foam ball should travel from between the shoulder blade to the center of the neck. As you roll on the neck area keep your finger on your spine to act as a guide and use your non working hand to stabilize the foam ball.  Next move the foam ball to the area where the shoulders end and the neck begins, and foam roll here ten to fifteen times. As you move up and down the foam ball should roll from where the shoulders begin to the base of the skull. Now move the foam ball to the base of the skull. Keep your finger on your spine to act as a guide. Now gentle roll the foam ball toward the same side ear. Stop 1 inch from the back of the ear, and roll back toward the center where your fingers are. Roll the foam ball back and forth in this manner ten to fifteen times.  Repeat on the other side.

Stretching and Caution:

If you have any concerns about the health of the spine of your neck consult with your doctor before doing these or any self care activity.  Always be gentle in your stretching. They should feel good not painful.

is beneficial following foam rolling because it re educates the muscle to a new pain free range of motion or lengthening. Caution:

There are 4 stretches that help re-educate and stretch these muscles.  

1.Breath in. As you exhale, move your chin toward your chest. Stop when you feel a good stretch and hold for the count of 5. Return to start position. Repeat 2-3 times.

2.Breath in. As you exhale turn your head to one side until it is pointing toward your armpit.  Then move your chin downward, until you feel a good stretch. Hold for the count of 5. Return to start position. Repeat 2-3 time. Do the same for the other side.

3.Breath in. Exhale and rotate your head as if your were looking over your shoulder. Hold in this position for the count of 5. Return to start position. Repeat 2-3 times.Do the same for the other side.

4. Breath in. Exhale and move one ear toward your shoulder, until you feel a good stretch. Hold for the count of 5. Return to the start position. Repeat 2-3 times. Do the same for the other side.

If you would like to take control of your own self care and learn more about our online Foam Rolling Program
“Purposeful Foam Rolling”

Make sure to check with your doctor prior too engaging in this or any exercise activity. If you have any concerns or issues with your neck or the spine of your neck, check with your doctor first before performing these stretches. Stretching should be done to a point where you feel a gentle stretch on the muscle. If you feel pain stop and consult with your doctor. These stretches are for educational purposes only and are not intended to treat, cure, or diagnose.

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