3-2-1 Approach To Eliminating Tension Headaches

Dr. Erica, tension headaches

Are you currently dealing with chronic headaches and/or neck pain? You are not alone! 30% of individuals dealing with neck pain will develop chronic symptoms that last greater than 6 months1. The most troublesome piece is the financial distress it can cause (possible loss of income due to disability, imaging, medications, injections, and surgeries) when in most cases they are not warranted and do not provide the relief you’re looking for. Most neck pain is nonspecific meaning there isn’t one cause or anatomical structure causing your symptoms. So why is conventional medicine treating neck pain with the shotgun approach?

The most important step in finding relief of your symptoms is seeking out an expert that is licensed in evaluation and treating musculoskeletal injuries such as nonspecific neck pain and headaches. A thorough evaluation must be completed and will provide you with a better understanding of why you are dealing with this pain, along with a structured program that combines both manual therapy and corrective exercise. At MVMT, we are musculoskeletal experts; performance physical therapy in Green Bay, and we help people alleviate their headaches all the time.

With neck pain and headaches that are nonspecific, treatment should consist of a multimodal approach. No two cases are the same, but it’s important to address all aspects including hydration, nutrition, sleep, postures, work and home environment. Besides lifestyle changes, there are usually soft tissue and/or joint restrictions to address that are impairing your movements as well as muscular imbalances. Here are some of our go-to exercises in what we call the 3-2-1 Approach to eliminating tension headaches and neck pain.

3 Mobility Drills

LS/UT Stretches

The upper trapezius and levator scapulae muscles play an important role in neck mobility and health. They have attachment points to the shoulder blade (scapula) and upper neck region so in order to really feel this stretch, the shoulder blade must depress by anchoring your hand to your chair.


Cervical Sustained Natural Apophyseal Glides (let’s call them neck SNAGs for short) are a great remedy for tension headaches and neck pain due to missing rotation. Most of your rotation in your neck occurs at the upper portion (C2), so if you’re limited in the ability to look over your shoulder give this one a try.

Thoracic Extension

The mid-back, or thoracic spine, also plays a role in neck pain. By increasing your mobility in the thoracic spine, it creates a domino effect through the cervical spine.

2 Soft Tissue Releases

First Rib Mobilization

Take a lacrosse ball and use it to target the upper trapezius and the scalenes which have connections to the 1st rib. Tightness in these areas can alter your ribcage mechanics causing all kinds of issues down the line including neck pain and headaches.

Suboccipital Release

This soft tissue mobilization targets the group of tiny muscles known as the suboccipitals. If these muscles become tight or develop trigger points they can cause referred pain to the top of your head, forehead or around your eyes. We recommend taping two lacrosse or tennis balls to provide space for the boney prominences of your cervical spine.

1 Strengthener

Chin Tuck with Lift

While addressing soft tissue restrictions may provide immediate relief of your symptoms, it’s also important to address muscular imbalances in order to reduce the chance of flare ups or the pain coming back. This exercise targets the deep neck flexors which become neglected from long bouts of neck pain.

Looking For More Help?

*This is helpful information, but it is general information. This is NOT medical advice. If you already have any injury, pain, tightness, etc., please seek help from a licensed and qualified healthcare provider like us, performance physical therapy in Green Bay. A complete solution for what you’re dealing with needs to be customized to all the different factors driving your pain, and those factors will be at least slightly different for each person. These strategies may help, but they’re not likely to be a complete solution for each individual reading this now or in the future.