Your Headache Pain May Really Be a Pain in the Neck – Sternocleidomastoid Muscle Technique

Where in My Head Does the Sternocleidomastoid Send Pain To?

As we have seen from previous blogs, the sternocleidomastoid muscle is the muscle of the side of your neck that starts on your collarbone and projects to the area by your ear. Remember, a tight left sternocleidomastoid such as is pictured here limits neck turning to the right.  It is a Y-shaped muscle which does many unique things.

Tight bands and knots in the sternocleidomastoid can send pain to the front part of your head, around your eyes and to the top of your head. It can send pain into your jaw and even into your ear.

Consequently, given these complicated patterns, you may want to learn more about muscle trigger points. Check out the excellent trigger point manual by Dr. Janet Travell, Dr. David Simons, and Lois Simons P.T., Volume I, 1999. You will find very thorough diagrams as to what the referral patterns are for many muscles.

Some of these referral patterns do not seem to make much sense. However, you may find that they are responsible for some of the chronic pain you have been living with.

Sternocleidomastoid Technique Re-Visited

You get a lot of relief when you target the sternocleidomastoid muscle properly. Therefore, consider the word properly. You may have headache relief in the palm of your hand, but you are just not executing hand placement properly. As a result, you may have several technique flaws that limit the effectiveness of your treatment.

What are some of the errors you might be making?

You Need to Massage Higher Up on the Muscle Closer to Your Ear

Too many people I see confine their massage too far down on the muscle. People are massaging the muscle correctly, but incompletely. Most importantly, they are just missing the portion of the muscle that may be producing their headache. In their case, the higher part of the sternocleidomastoid muscle by the ear may be the headache generator. Be thorough!

Moreover, do not just stay on one part of the muscle. Why? The sternocleidomastoid is a relatively long muscle. Therefore, direct your massage up the side of the neck towards your ear. As a result of this change, you will likely find numerous trigger points along the way.

Stay a good distance away from the front part of your neck! Consider that part of the sternocleidomastoid does attach near the front of the neck. Remember that you have sensitive structures in the front of your neck! For this reason, my clients stay away from this lower part of the muscle.

You Need to Turn Your Neck Far Enough to Bring the Muscle to Stretch It Out Fully

Of course, do not use forcible motion on your neck. Do not continue to turn your neck if you feel dizziness, sharp pain, or some other undesirable effect. If you have had neck surgery, do not turn your neck while doing this massage.

If you massage the sternocleidomastoid with your neck turned, you will have an easier time keeping your hands away from the front part of your throat. In addition, the trigger points in the sternocleidomastoid muscle may jump out more dramatically as well.

Use Your Hands to Massage, Not Slide, Along the Muscle

People frequently just slide along the skin over the muscle and consequently glide over the trigger points. If you do circular massages and move from trigger point to trigger point you will likely have more success.

Do not make yourself miserable with pressure to the trigger points. Realize that these muscle knots may have been there for a long time. Consequently, loosening them up may be akin to chipping away at a block of ice. Persevere, and bit by bit your trigger points will release.

Most people tell me their sternocleidomastoid points become less sore and tight after several weeks.

Use Your Opposite Hand to Reach Across for the Best Grip

When you raise up your hand on the same side to massage the sternocleidomastoid muscle on that side, you also elevate your collar bone to which the sternocleidomastoid is attached. As your collarbone raises up, your sternocleidomastoid tightens up. Consequently, you have tightened up the very muscle you are trying to massage!

What If I Cannot Use My Opposite Hand to Reach the Sternocleidomastoid Muscle?

Not to worry. You may have a shoulder operation or arthritis that makes it too difficult to cross your arm over. In that case, prop your arm on your kitchen table or armrest of your couch. You can lean into your hand or fist to work the muscle out.

Use a baseball, softball, or tennis ball in the palm of your hand to gently apply pressure to the trigger points. These options work well when you cannot use your opposite hand to apply pressure.

Keep Your Neck in Good Alignment When You Massage

Tuck the chin slightly to stretch out the sternocleidomastoid. Do not look up.

In addition, make sure you are turning your neck, not just side-bending it. Your massage will get a better result that way.

Does the Sternocleidomastoid Muscle Do More than Affect My Headache Pain?

Absolutely! You may have other benefits from working out this muscle.

Many of my clients watch their jaw pain fade as their jaw can now open farther. Other clients actually “watch” their fuzzy vision get better. Others note the vague sense of dizziness fade. I once treated a medical doctor whose dizziness turned out to be coming from the sternocleidomastoid muscle, rather than the inner ear dysfunction.

Check with Your Friendly Neighborhood Physical Therapist to Coach You

The sternocleidomastoid is a complicated muscle! Check with your physical therapist to help you get your treatment rolling. Your physical therapist can help you with your hand placement and assess if you have any underlying conditions that could affect your treatment.

See if this often-ignored muscle is responsible for some of your headache troubles. Complete your check-up from the neck-up!



-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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