At almost exactly this time two days ago I heard about the awful, senseless, horrifying Boston Marathon bombings. My reaction was instantaneous; I didn’t have to think about it. I inhaled sharply and held my breath, tightening my stomach muscles, almost visibly curling forward around my center. My breathing remained shallow as I focused on the unbelievable images on the tv. Only the feeling of being cold, especially in my hands, alerted me to the fact that I had fallen back into my old breathing pattern: fast, shallow, stomach held in.
So what does any of this have to do with headaches? Simply put, I believe slow, effortless belly breathing is the single most important thing headache sufferers can do to decrease the frequency and intensity of their headaches.
Not once in the fifteen years I’ve been treating people with headaches have I met a headache sufferer who has not been what we call an “upper chest breather.” I used to be the queen of upper chest breathing. I was cold almost all the time, especially my hands and feet. I felt like I had rocks in the muscles between my shoulders and my neck. And the place between my lower ribs just above my stomach? Tight, tight, tight. This was my “normal,” and I didn’t think twice about it. I sighed a lot, and yawned a lot, and occasionally noticed that, curiously, I was barely breathing. What I didn’t do was connect it to the headaches that robbed me of several days of my life every few weeks.
I will go into more detail about how to breathe more optimally in the next post. For today, please just do one thing. Check your own breathing. Fast or slow? Upper chest or belly? Does your breathing change when you’re stressed or rushed? Just check it out. No judgment. You don’t even need to try and change it at this point. Just start to become aware of your breathing pattern. Because it’s not the big things that we do once in a while that have the strongest impact. It’s the little things that we do all the time, that we are scarcely even aware of.
~Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?~ Mary Oliver
Warning: What I am about to say may seem counter to much of what you’ve heard from other physical therapists, trainers, etc… No matter if you have headaches or neck pain or back pain, DON’T try to correct your posture, especially if it hurts to do so.
Our bodies naturally position themselves to take pressure off of nerves, because nerves don’t like to be squished or pulled on. Not at all, and they will let you know immediately when you are doing so. Often people have a lateral shift with a backache or a forward head with neck pain or headaches. This is your body’s way of protecting the nerves. If you artificially correct your posture to be “straight” or “correct,” you’ll be irritating sensitive structures that are already ticked off. Kind of like picking at a scab (yucky but true): You’re not doing anything permanently harmful, but you are slowing the healing process.
So, what should you do? Move, gently, and in ways that feel ok, even if that means only small movements. Your purpose is not to stretch tight muscles (as this is actually not even possible), it is to get your muscles to relax and soften, cultivating a feeling of ease. Which, ironically, is not easy.
I used to get headaches, a lot. Every month I’d lose several days to them (which I know, compared to many of you, is not bad at all…) I tried lots of things: expensive vitamins and herbal supplements, meditation, eating really, really, strangely, boringly well. And these things helped. A little.
I’m also a physical therapist. Graduated from Marquette University in 1981. But the headache person and the physical therapy person didn’t really connect until about 15 years ago, when I started learning more about how a person’s overall state (as in, the condition of one’s entire nervous system, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself…) affects headaches and chronic pain.
For the last 15 years I’ve worked with people suffering from headaches and various other kinds of chronic pain, mostly neck and back. And people get better. Not because I’m the most fantastic PT in the world, but because our nervous systems are amazingly resilient and adaptable, and, given half a chance, work toward turning off pain, not turning it up. But we have to learn how to give our bodies this “half a chance.”
Me? I rarely get headaches anymore. Except for the occasional self-induced red wine kind. I’m starting this blog in the hopes that you will soon be able to say the same.