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  • Dr. Lee Brotherston

When life makes your head hurt

Posture series: part 1


Humans are remarkably adaptable creatures – our bodies are constantly changing to match the demands placed on them. Maybe the simplest example is when you run you get better at running. You can run further, faster, or both depending on how you train. We are efficiency machines, and anything that is no longer needed gets thrown by the wayside to make room for what we do need - we build tissue where we need it, and get rid of tissue where we don't.

However, the same principles that allow us to become better at sport can also work against us. When we sit at our desk jobs for 8 hours a day, sit in our car to and from work, and sit in front of our TV or computer when we get home, our body adapts to these new demands. This can entail getting rid of muscle (muscle uses a lot of energy to keep around, if we don’t use it, there is no point in having it use valuable resources), or shortening muscles to accommodate the positions we often find ourselves in.

We were not built to maintain a single posture all the time, and we certainly weren’t designed to sit for the majority of our lives. As muscles change to better suit your seated lifestyle, several things happen. It places abnormal stresses on your body, nerves can become “trapped” between or within short/tight muscles, and the tight muscles themselves become pain generators. This leads to back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, hip pain, headaches, and any number of other unpleasant symptoms. Not only that, but when you do try to regain function and decide to start walking/running/going to the gym, your body doesn’t want to move in ways it should, leading to further pain and possible injury.

This ongoing series will examine several areas of the body where we see postural abnormalities influencing someone’s pain and function. Then we will provide some tips on how to manage that pain and get some relief.

Today we’ll start at the top and look at the way we hold our heads and how it can be leading to headaches and neck pain. There are four pairs of muscles that as a group are referred to as the suboccipital muscles. The GIF below, from wikipedia, shows exactly where the suboccipitals are located. These muscles are quite small, but the impact they can have when it comes to neck pain and headaches should not be underestimated.

The reason is this: you have nerves that exit from between these muscles that innervate structures of your head. If these muscles become irritated and inflamed they in turn irritate the nerves, leading to neck pain, and headaches. So how do these muscles become irritated? By being used in a manner they are not designed. Due to the size and orientation of these muscles, they don’t have a significant role in terms of actual head or neck movement. Rather, their role is more proprioceptive in nature. That is, they are there to help us with head-eye coordination. But when we sit for long periods of time staring at a computer screen (like I am as I type this) our heads tend to tilt forward. Now if you simply allow the weight of your head to drag it down, we’d be staring at the floor, so these little suboccipital muscles have to work overtime to bring our line of sight back up. This posture is often referred to as “Scholar’s Posture”, or “Reading Posture”, but we apply a fancier name, anterior head carriage (or forward head posture). Over time this causes the suboccipitals to become tight and angry with you, squeezing the nerves and wreaking havoc.

So what can you do? First things first, step away from the computer screen for a minute, and head over to a wall. Stand with your back to the wall and have your buttocks and shoulder blades touching the wall. Your head should also be touching the wall. If it isn’t, it’s a good indication that you need to work on your posture. Now, stay where you are, but bring your head backwards so it is now touching the wall. Tuck your chin in as if you are nodding while pressing your head into the wall, gently. This will help to lengthen out those little muscles and relieve them of some stress. You’ll know you’re doing it right if you get a “double chin” while you’re performing the exercise. Some people prefer to do these while no one is watching and if you’re more comfortable that way that’s okay. Doing it in the car is a great idea while you’re stopped at a stoplight. Simply use the headrest to push against. Another thing you can do to help relieve some tension is to perform a self-massage on these little muscles. Simply rub the area just below where you feel your skull meet the muscles of your neck. The area will probably be tender so you’ll know when you found it.

Alternatively, this is something we see very frequently and typically responds quite well to chiropractic treatment. We use a combination of soft tissue therapy (ART), adjustments, gentle mobilizations, and exercise to stop the pain and prevent it from coming back. So if you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, in a car, watching TV, or reading books, and suffer from neck pain and headaches, try the steps outlined above to remedy your pain. If you need some help, give us a call and we’ll be happy to help.

Thanks for reading (now go do something else),

Lee Brotherston

Partner and Chiropractor at

Oak Ridges Health Group

58 Brock Street W, Suite 201

Uxbridge ON, L9P 1P3



Ajimsha, M. S. (2011). Effectiveness of direct vs indirect technique myofascial release in the management of tension-type headache. Journal of bodywork and movement therapies, 15(4), 431-435.

Chiona, V. (2017). Your headache toolkit: 8 tips for managing headaches - Expat Nest e-counselling. Expat Nest e-counselling. Retrieved 1 March 2017, from

How To Treat Forward Head Posture. (2017). HubPages. Retrieved 1 March 2017, from

Kulkarni V, Chandy M J, Babu K S. Quantitative study of muscle spindles in suboccipital muscles of human foetuses. Neurol India 2001;49:355

Moore, K., Dalley, A., & Agur, A. Clinically oriented anatomy (1st ed.).

Simons, D., Travell, J., & Simons, L. (1999). Travell & Simons' myofascial pain and dysfunction (1st ed.). Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Suboccipital muscles. (2017). Retrieved 1 March 2017, from

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