Trouble With The Curve

Has someone thrown a ball at you when you weren’t expecting it? With little time to react, all you can do is brace yourself for impact. Your body turns inward, your hands dart up to protect your face, your head curls to your chest, your muscles tighten, waiting for the sting of the rawhide. You try not to wimper in pain but you know it will leave a mark.

This is the exact same involuntary reaction I have when a migraine hits. I physically brace myself for impact, the same way you do when you’re about to get hit with a fastball outta nowhere. The only difference is that the curving of the body and the intense muscle constriction maintains for hours, even days. The act of trying to protect myself from the pain is my natural way of dealing with it. But the constant tenseness doesn’t make it go away any faster. It only makes it worse.

Now that the Migraines are chronic, I am in perpetual protection mode. You can easily look at me and see my shoulders around my ears. I’m constantly rubbing and stretching my neck. I wake up in the morning and I have imprints of my fingernails in the palms of my hands because I sleep clenching my fists, hoping to knock out the pain in my dreams.  I have aches and pains of a 90-year-old.

Anytime I see a new masseuse they comment on the rocks in my neck and shoulders. One described my muscles as steel cables, and not in the Superman way. Sometimes I wonder, do the Migraines cause the knots or do the knots cause the Migraines? Either way it is a painful battle.

As a kid, I went to a chiropractor during my attacks. He was a family friend and my Dad would trade free car repair for free back cracks. I continued with adjustments as I grew older but often found an improper balance could cause a headache. Several attempts at physical therapy were also unfruitful. It felt great in the moment but long-term didn’t yield much relief. Earlier this year I went through intensive treatments of dry needling, which softened some of the tissue, but continuing 2-3 times a week was not going to fly with insurance. 

I try to get a massage once or twice a month (Tip- Massage schools often offer lower rates so that their students can practice- find one in your area!). I leave my huge purse at home and use a roller bag when traveling to avoid unnecessary daily stress on my shoulders. I keep ice packs in the freezer. I also try to stretch during the day. These are the little things that help me deal with the neck and shoulder issues.

Recently, I’ve made a concerted effort to be aware of my body positioning. Is my neck bent forward with my shoulders raised? Am I curled up in a fetal position in bed? Am I only taking shallow breaths that get stuck in my upper chest? All of these things perpetuate muscle tightness while preparing for the next pitch to hit me. At least a dozen times a day, the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” which means I just need to take a huge breath, let it go and shake it out. I inhale through my nose for 5 counts and then breath out my mouth for 5 counts. Taking 30-60 seconds to do this (multiple times a day) can make me feel more relaxed. I might be in the car, or watching TV, or even sitting with friends when I do this and nobody has any clue. You don’t need to be in a quiet, zen place to un-shrug your shoulders and take a few good deep breaths.

I’ll be honest, sometimes within 3 minutes of taking a breathing “time out” I find myself hunched over again. I’ve been protecting myself from foul balls for a long time. So I will take a deep breath and shake it out all over again. I have to re-train my muscles to be more relaxed. That way when the Migraine hits, I’m only dealing with the headache pain and not the headache AND the neck pain. It’s going to take a lot more practice for me to stop protecting myself from the stray balls and to be relaxed and aware enough to catch them.

Neck and shoulder tension are common issues among Migraneurs. What do you do to deal with pain in this area? Do you find that deep breathing helps to release the tension?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


View Comments (13)
  • CJ
    5 years ago

    I have this problem as well and thought I’d tried everything, including osteopath treatment, Botox, acupuncture, massage, muscle relaxers, etc. I began trigger point injections (lidocaine only, no steroids) with a pain management anesthesiologist in June and it has saved me. Trigger points are muscle knots that are very common and often deep down in the muscle tissue. I could feel some but ultrasound showed about a dozen that I wasn’t aware of. After the first round on just the right side of my neck and back, my left side muscles seized up and my chronic migraine increased. Over the past few months I’ve had two more sets of injections (all done under ultrasound) and my headache has gone from 24 hours a day of moderate-extreme pain to mild with extrme flareups once a week. (I’m unable to take hardly any meds so I’m not on a preventive, but I use 10 mg Rizatriptan once a week now and it actually works! Before TPI, the headache was too overwhelming for any abortive.) And at least one day a week, I don’t have a headache at all, which has been magical!

    Insurance covers trigger point injections 100% once your deductible is met, which is great because it is expensive. About $1,000 each time for the kind with ultrasound.

    I have pre-existing back issues, which is probably why this helps me. My neurologist believes that these trigger points are simply a migraine trigger and not the reason for my headache, but it’s worth a try when you feel like you’ve tried everything else. I didn’t expect them to work but I feel like I’ve found a miracle. Unless the trigger points become active again, I won’t have to get more injections.

    Hope this helps someone!

  • Katie M. Golden moderator author
    5 years ago

    Thanks for the suggestion. I will definitely ask my doctor about it!

  • Jamo3030
    5 years ago

    I have good posture and you would never know it looking at me but I had a doctor recently tell me that the muscles in my neck were unbelievably tight. I apparently should have been in pain from those muscles and likely had blocked out the pain after years of it being there. He thought that the migraine I was seeing him about was likely caused by that. He gave me 6 injections of an anti-inflammatory mixed with lidocaine. It was almost an instant fix. I walked out of his office with a mild (bareable) headache. He said the shots would last about 2 weeks.

  • Katie M. Golden moderator author
    5 years ago

    Wow, that’s amazing! I’ve never had a doc suggest that to me. I will definitely ask about it. So glad it’s working for you. Thanks for the info!

  • kindlight
    5 years ago

    For decades I thought I’d never get relief from this body bracing as a chronic migraineur. Two things have offered a way to “reset’ my body. One is very gentle yoga, particularly restorative yoga, and the other is a special type of PT that uses small movements to stabilize and release the muscles. I was lucky to find a doctor who knew the one PT in our entire city who did this and it has been amazing, completely different from what regular PT’s had taught me. I try to keep to my twice daily short session practice that incorporates both. Many of the exercises are done laying down and involve only small movements so that even on the worst days I can do 2-3 minutes of them.

  • Ann B
    5 years ago

    Thank you, Katie. I could have written this. A neurologist once told me that most people don’t go around with their shoulders tensed up to their ears! I hadn’t even realized I was doing that. Several PT sessions made me more aware of my posture. Like you, good posture is still not natural and I have to remember to correct it many times a day. Heat feels better on my neck/shoulders than cold, so a hot shower on the mornings I wake up in pain gives temporary relief. The biggest help is my wonderful daughter who has just the right touch, and can find those painful trigger points and muscle knots in my back and work them out. Alas, she has gone to college this year, and I really miss her gentle touch that has given me so much relief over the years! I do take a muscle relaxant at night, and it has been one of the best preventatives I’ve been on, although after about a year it stopped working as well. It does, however, help me sleep, which is still a plus. Sleeping on my back does help. I prefer to sleep on my side, but can tell everything is out of whack when I do.

  • zippy36
    5 years ago

    I have recently been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I have always had tension in my shoulders and neck when I get a migraine. Just today I was prescribed Zanaflex. I am supposed to take it before bed when I am having issues with my fibromyalgia. I read that it may also help migraines. Does anyone else have experience with this drug? Could a muscle relaxer help me to avoid that tension in my neck/shoulder area that so often causes or is in addition to my migraine?

  • Katie M. Golden moderator author
    5 years ago

    I’ve personally taken a different muscle relaxer to help with the migraines. It was very helpful, but had to come off of it for various reasons. I would warn that these types of drugs can become addictive if not used properly. It can also take some trial and error to find the right dose for you.

    Please read this link about muscle relaxers and how they work in your body. Good luck and I hope it gives you some relief!

  • theresadz
    5 years ago

    For those that find themselves in this constant battle-ready mode I would highly suggest biofeedback therapy. My biofeedback clinician was a HUGE help. I still have the rocks in my shoulders but I have the tools now to release a lot of body tension and I no longer clench my jaw at night and have relaxed a lot more than ever before. It takes a LOT of hard work, homework and working with a GOOD clinician/therapist that knows what they are doing but I would highly recommend it.

  • 5 years ago

    I would recommend you try Botox if you haven’t already. It relaxes all those muscles in the neck and upper back. I still get Migraines but I am definitely less tense and they are not as severe.

  • Katie M. Golden moderator author
    5 years ago

    Kmilne- I’ve been doing Botox for 3 years now. It helps quite a lot. I even get injections around my jaw to help with TMJ issues. It’s great until it starts to wear off and then I notice the steel cables come back!
    I’m really glad the Botox is working for you!

  • kim716
    5 years ago

    Thank you. You have spelled out what I have been unable to put into words. I get a massage every 2 or 3 weeks to combat this same problem. People ask me if it helps with my migraines and the honest answer is, no, the massage doesn’t help with the frequency or intensity of the migraines. But it does help with the tension and body aches and helps me to relax and helps me to feel better.

  • fay
    5 years ago

    I thought I am the only one that have this. I am always on a defensive mode… cannot help it. You learned to accept it, you have to. But with this acceptance you learned how to react sometimes in a positive way…like, “okay, here you are. I am laying down in a dark, dark room.”

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