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 Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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