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The Chant I Developed to Ease My Headaches

As a result of a life-threatening illness and long term hospitalization years ago, I developed kyphoscoliosis and contractured shoulders. These musculoskeletal issues limit the range of motion in my arms and cause cervicogenic headaches on a daily basis. I have tried everything to ease the headaches, from massage to nerve blocks to Botox injections. While some of them work for a short period of time, none of them have proven to be a long-term solution. Like most people who live with chronic pain, I have learned to tolerate a level of pain that would crush an average person, so I’ve developed some methods of managing it. This is one of those methods.

One day, as I was driving my power wheelchair to my husband’s place, I sadly noticed that my inevitable daily headache was growing. Then I realized how tight and sore my eyes felt. I stopped my chair and closed my eyes, letting them rest. That’s when I noticed the tension in my forehead, so I relaxed it. Before long, I was systematically locating where the tension was in my face and head and relaxing those muscles too. As I continued, I began to feel better. The headache didn’t disappear, but the tension that was feeding it did. I ended up developing a kind of simple chant out of it:

Rest the Eyes
Loosen the Jaw
Relax the Neck
Drop the Shoulders

Rest the Eyes

This doesn’t only mean closing your eyelids, although that’s a good start. While you’re at it, go ahead and rest your eyeballs. There are six muscles in your eye sockets that control the movement of your eyes. Relax them. Let your eyes lightly float in their pool of darkness. What about your forehead? Are your eyebrows pinched down in a frown, or pulled up in worry? Is your brow wrinkled in anxiety? Rest them. And your temples? They each have a muscle, too, and they’re pretty big. They arc over the top of your ears. I have a habit of drawing those back when I concentrate. When I relax them, I can feel an instant release of pent-up tension. The top half of your head should be free of tension now. Moving on…

Loosen the Jaw

There are three jaw-closing muscles and two jaw-opening muscles on each side of your jaw. The masseter muscle is the strongest muscle for its weight in the human body, and in conjunction with the other muscles in the jaw, can exert up to 265 lbs. of pressure on average. So, if you are clenching your jaw, you can imagine how much tension is built up in those muscles. Loosen them. Relax the muscles, and let your mouth hang open a little. Are you trying to hold on to a “perma-smile?” Once, as I was passing by a mirrored window, I caught sight of my resting face, and was shocked at how grieved it appeared. Ever since that day, I find myself often trying to maintain a pleasant expression on my face, and it creates a great deal of tension I am not aware of. Pay attention to those ears, too. Are you straining to hear something, or struggling to block noise, or pulling your ears back? Let all that go. Then move on to your neck…

Relax the Neck

Because of the kyphosis, my upper back is rounded, and the muscles in the left side of my neck are shorter and tighter than the right. As a result, my head wants to tip forward and left. However, in order to see where I’m going and look at who I’m talking to, I must try to hold my head up. This puts a lot of strain on my neck. Letting my head fall where it wants lets all that tension release. The average weight of a human head is 10-12 lbs. But if you lean forward by 15°, that weight increases to about 27 lbs. That’s like hanging a 2-year-old toddler around your neck! There are 26 muscles in your neck, not only turning, tilting, twisting, shaking, and nodding your head, but constantly adjusting and firing to keep it stable so you don’t end up like a “bobblehead.” Relax them all. Let your head droop and rest on your chest, or fall back and rest on the headrest.

Drop the Shoulders

There are two large trapezius muscles that run down the back of your neck, cover the top of your shoulders, and fan down your upper back. In response to fear, stress, anxiety, and sometimes emotional distress, we tend to raise our shoulders upward as an instinctual protective response, holding a lot of tension in those muscles. I often find, after about 10 minutes of driving my chair next to a busy roadway, I have practically driven my shoulders into my ears, so I look like a turtle pulled half into its shell. If this is you, let those shoulders drop. As soon as you do, all the other muscles in your shoulders will want to relax as well. Feel your shoulders drop down and back, let your arms go limp, and feel the tension leech out of your back.

Practice and Repetition

Every time I feel the tension rising in my body, each time I notice my headache intensifying, I say this chant. I won’t claim that the headache disappears like magic. But I can say it significantly reduces the tension that feeds it. At first, I would literally stop whatever I was doing to concentrate on each step of the process. Now, I can do it on the fly, resting, loosening, relaxing and dropping the muscles in my head, neck and shoulders in rapid succession. I have developed a greater awareness of my body, identifying the typically problematic muscles and recognizing sooner when they are rigid.

I thought I’d share my little chant with you. Maybe it will be another tool for your pain management toolbox. Give it a try! I hope it helps. Let me know if it does.

Getty image by Irina Shatilova.