Holiday Headaches

Holiday season is quickly approaching! While this time of year is all about family, friends, food and fun, it also often brings increased stress to our lives. For many, stress can be a major trigger of headaches. Stress headaches, otherwise, known as “tension headaches,” are the most common type of headache experienced in adults. Ninety percent of adults have had or will have a tension headache in their lifetime. You are especially susceptible to experiencing a stress headache if you already suffer with chronic headaches. When you are stressed, you may notice an increase in the frequency, duration or intensity of your headache.

Before considering treatment options for headaches, it is important to note that there are a variety of things that can either cause or exacerbate your headache, including both emotional and physical stresses. Some of these factors are easier to control than others. For example, physical stressors include prolonged sitting, poor posture, and lack of sleep. There are things we can do to try to reduce the negative effects of these physical stressors, such as taking frequent mini-breaks (1-2 minutes) away from your desk and computer screen if you have a desk job. You should take a break to stand up at least once every 30 minutes. Set a timer on your phone otherwise chances are you will get too engrossed in your work and forget to take a break. Another thing you can do is sit with good posture and have an ergonomically correct work station set up.


When sitting, your ears should sit directly over your shoulders and shoulders directly over your hips to promote good back and head posture. In addition, getting enough adequate sleep is important when it comes to preventing headaches. Sleep is when our body heals and a lack of adequate sleep can actually cause or exacerbate your headache.

Emotional stressors, on the other hand, are more difficult to control. You can, however, partake in activities that will help decrease your stress levels, such as regular aerobic exercise, yoga, meditation, or simply taking a few deep breaths can help reduce your stress enough to provide some level of relief from your headaches. Slow abdominal breathing, otherwise known as diaphragmatic breathing, works to instantly decrease stress levels because it stimulates the vagus nerve. When you are stressed, your vagus nerve becomes inflamed. This inflammation of the vagus nerve activates the relaxation response of your parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of “rest and digest”. Therefore, stimulation of the vagus nerve lowers stress responses and anxiety related to fight-or-flight mechanisms.₁

Often headaches are due to decreased mobility in the spine and an imbalance (tightness or weakness) in the muscles of the head, neck, jaw, and upper back. As far as treatment options go, you can start with specific exercises to help loosen up and strengthen these muscles. If you are interested in learning more about specific exercises and other tips for reducing headaches, check out our Headaches Booklet here. While medication might help you make it through a busy day with a headache, medications tend to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying cause of your headache.

If you have a headache you just can’t knock, it might be time to come in to the clinic. We will find the muscle or area of your body that is causing your headache and get after it with all the tools in our toolbox. There are a variety of tools and tricks we can use- from manual therapy interventions to spinal manipulation to dry needling- to get rid of that headache, while also helping reduce the frequency and intensity of future headaches so that you can enjoy the holiday season without a hitch. (Side note: if you experience migraines and your migraine medication helps when you take it, then chances are you are experiencing a true migraine and due to it being neurological in nature rather than mechanical, there is not much that can be done for these from a physical therapy perspective.)

Because there are many factors that can contribute to headaches, the best treatment program is should include a holistic approach. If you suffer from chronic headaches, it would probably be beneficial to start making changes in multiple areas of your every day life, such as incorporating exercise into your every day routine (this can be as simple as going for a 30 minute walk), doing yoga, setting up an ergonomically correct workstation, and mindful breathing are all great places to start. Let’s bust these headaches before the holiday chaos begins!


  1. Bergland, C. (2017, May 16). Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises and Your Vagus Nerve. Retrieved November 13, 2018, from

Krystle Howald