Miserable Muscle Number One; The Sternocleidomastoid. Treatment Part One

Miserable Muscle Number One; the Sternocleidomastoid. Part One

     Do not try to say the name of this muscle, just get control over it.

Muscle spasms can produce major headaches! The answer you need to know is which muscles are causing your headaches? How do you get those muscles to let go and give your head a rest? Once you know which muscles you can target, you can use stretches, head and neck massage and acupressure techniques. You can quiet your headache in anywhere from five to no more than fifteen minutes, without using drugs.

Not all muscles are headache-producers. The sternocleidomastoid muscle is high on your list of likely troublemakers. Do not worry if you cannot say the name if this muscle.  You will learn how to release this muscle, along with your headache, long before you ever learn how to pronounce sternocleidomastoid properly.

Why does it have such a long name?  Well, it is a long muscle.  It runs from the back if the head (mastoid), to the collarbone (cleido) and breastbone (sterno).  It is shaped like an upside-down “Y” where the two branches come together at the side of the neck.  The bad news is that it gets tight and tender very easily, sending a wave of pain through the neck, jaw and to both sides of the forehead.  The good news is that it is easier to reach than many muscles are. Look no further than this muscle to get your headache under control. It is the main cause of many headaches. 

     Are my headaches caused by my neck muscles?

Migraine headaches occur primarily in the area by the eyes, along with the front and side of the head. However, roughly 40% of people with migraines also have pain that is present in the neck, according to a study of 1,283 migraineurs. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1526-4610.2005.05185.x  

I find that when people come in with a headache co-existing with neck pain, the muscles in the neck are generally tight and tender. The sternocleidomastoid muscle is almost always one of the muscles involved in these cases. Stretch and massage your neck muscles! You can either prevent a severe headache episode or bring down the intensity of an existing headache.

You would never think that this sternocleidomastoid muscle on the side of your neck could be responsible for so much of your headache troubles. Put pressure on it or stretch it, and your headache will often fade.

     How do I use the sternocleidomastoid muscle to calm my headaches?

A woman I treated recently had been suffering from migraine headaches for years and was delighted to find that when she put pressure on the upper front third of the sternocleidomastoid muscle her headache faded away in 30 seconds. Her comment was one that I get a lot, which was “Why didn’t anyone ever show me this before?” The sternocleidomastoid massage is an easy treatment, and it is a shame countless people are suffering needlessly.

What is the best approach to do this sternocleidomastoid massage? Focus your attention to the upper half of the sternocleidomastoid muscle by the ear and downwards to the level of the base of your jaw.  The following technique can be used to increase flexibility in a right sternocleidomastoid muscle;

  • Cross your left hand across your chest.
  • Turn your neck to the left as far as you can.  The right sternocleidomastoid muscle will resist your turning your neck to the left.
  • Start putting deep pressure on the muscle, and watch your headache slowly fade. 
  • Hold the pressure for at least 30 to 60 seconds.  Will the point be tender?  Yes, it will be.  Generally, however, where there is smoke, there is fire, and if the point is tender it likely means that a beneficial result is forthcoming.  However, do not put yourself through a lot of pain to release the muscle.  You do not have to feel extreme pain since a pressure that produces medium tenderness is usually enough to get the job done.  Start up by your ear, and move slowly from point to point, as you will find of few of them embedded in the sternocleidomastoid muscle. Slowly the muscle will relax under your finger pressure. Do not go too quickly and just rub your skin.

Why do you cross over with the opposite hand, for instance, using a left hand to reach a right sternocleidomastoid muscle?  Why not just use your right hand to reach to muscle, since it is on the same side of the body?  If you look carefully at the attachments of the muscle, you will see that the sternocleidomastoid also attaches to the collarbone.  If you are using your right hand to reach up to the right sternocleidomastoid muscle, you are in fact tightening the muscle as your right shoulder hunches to reach the muscle.  Your left hand can cross over to massage the muscle without hunching the shoulder.

When I see a person with a headache who is not able to turn their head normally, I find the sternocleidomastoid is usually tight. This decreased neck motion is almost always is a contributor to the headache problem. Many clients have limitations in turning their neck both to the right and the left, with tight muscles on both sides of the neck. Tuck the chin slightly as you do the massage, and do not look up.

     When should I not treat the sternocleidomastoid?

STOP treating the sternocleidomastoid if you feel any dizziness, nausea, extremely sharp pain, or any other unpleasant effect. Make sure you stay on the muscle. Do not stray towards the front of the neck where you will encounter blood vessels and your breathing tube. Focus on the upper half of the sternocleidomastoid muscle. This portion of the muscle is the part that directly affects the headache.  Do not let your hand touch the front part of your neck as you massage the muscle.

     Have you ever tried treating the sternocleidomastoid to help your headaches?

Many people are surprised that treating the sternocleidomastoid relieves their headache pain. People are used to thinking that the source of pain is where the pain is. However, that frequently is not the case. Future blogs will show you how you can treat yourself with points far away from your headache. Check with your healthcare provider to see if treating the sternocleidomastoid muscle can help you with your chronic headaches.



-You understand that if not done properly, some techniques and exercises described in this blog could harm you. Any activities you perform are at your own risk, and you expressly agree to waive any claims against the author for any harm that may arise from your own actions. By reading this blog and conducting these exercises, you accept this risk. This blog provides content related to physical and/or mental health issues. As such, your use of techniques described acts as your acceptance of this disclaimer. Consult Chapter 2 in my book, “Calming the Headache Storm” to make sure the headache is not the sign of a more serious problem. The techniques, advice and strategies contained in this blog may not be suitable for every individual and should be abandoned if your headache increases. Seek the advice of your physician. 



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