Neck Muscles at the Intersection of Headache and Jaw Pain

The Neglected Neck Muscles

How often do you check the muscles on the side of your neck? Check them often to see if they are tight and tender! That is, check them if you suffer from headaches, jaw pain and stiffness, dizziness, eye and ear pain or poor balance.

Your problems may stem in whole or in part from muscles on the sides of your neck called the sternocleidomastoid. Observe the sternocleidomastoid muscle depicted intricately masterfully above. It is one of the most complicated muscles in your body and affects multiple seemingly unrelated functions.

However, we will just look at two of the issues it can produce, those being headache and jaw dysfunction.


Your sternocleidomastoid causes headaches by the truckload. Your troubled sternocleidomastoid projects headache pain into the front part of your eyes and the top of your head. You can find the diagrams of pain projection in Dr. Janet Travell’s and Dr. David Simon’s classic trigger point referral map.

The sternocleidomastoid trigger points at the side of your neck also can project pain into your jaw. This muscle at the side of your neck causes both headache and temporomandibular dysfunction conditions. Headache and jaw relief surprisingly arises from massaging a muscle that has no actual physical connection to the jaw or head.

My Jaw Hurts When I Bite Down

You bite down on that Chick-Fil-A sandwich and your jaw hurts. Would you find it wonderful to be able to chew that delicious food and not have your jaw hurt?

First, apply pressure to the trigger point in the sternocleidomastoid and bite down. You notice suddenly than there is no jaw pain as you bite down. Take your hand off the side of your neck. There the pain is when you bite down. Push the point in the sternocleidomastoid again. You pain vanishes again. Isn’t this fun? However, you need to release the tightness in this muscle and keep it released to keep the jaw pain at bay.

Secondly, take the top off your sandwich so you do not force your jaw past the point where it can comfortably open. Plus, you do not need the extra layer of bread anyway. You experience the taste of the sandwich hitting your taste buds without having to go through that filler layer of bread.

My Jaw Hurts When I Try to Open It

Your temporomandibular joint may be blocked from the inside. Your neck muscle release may do nothing to open your jaw in this case.

On the other hand, your side neck muscle may trigger tension in muscle knots in the masseter muscle on the side of your jaw. Your tight masseter muscle can lock your jaw up quite solidly. Your healthcare practitioner can work these muscle spasms on the side of your face to help free up your jaw.

The masseter release occurs with deep massage both outside and even inside the mouth. You dig with your fingers on the inside of your mouth to free up this muscle when the outside work is not enough.

As a brief aside, if this masseter muscle is inflamed, use an ice popsicle to calm it down. Most people prefer the ice popsicle as opposed to using their thumbs and fingers to grope around inside their mouths.

However, do not start with the inside work first! Instead, check your neck. Your jaw will clamp down again if you have ignored these still-active trigger points on the side of your neck. A further benefit is that you slobber through fewer Kleenexes when you can stay outside your mouth. Remove the external neck triggers first!

Assume the sternocleidomastoid is a player in your tight jaw, as it is with many of my clients. Massage your upper sternocleidomastoid on the same side as your jaw dysfunction.  As a result, you may find your mouth can open further in just several minutes. Often someone’s jaw has been stuck for weeks or even months. A common comment is, “I would never think to push the side of my neck to get my jaw better!”

While we are on this topic, you may find a brief detour useful. The upper trapezius muscle also has these indirect jaw connections. Almost on a weekly basis, when I stretch a person’s upper trapezius muscle with a sheet stretch the jaw opens further. Therefore, before proceeding directly to your jaw muscles, clear up your surrounding muscles first.

How Do I Release My Side Neck Muscles and Keep Them Loose?

Firstly, correct your posture! When both sternocleidomastoids fire they pull your head forward and tilt your neck back. Correct your posture and you stretch them both out.

Secondly, realize that good posture is not enough. A sternocleidomastoid muscle also turns the neck away from it, in the opposite direction. If your sternocleidomastoid muscles are tight, your neck turning is limited. I find it is rare that just one sternocleidomastoid muscle is tight. Both are generally tight in varying degrees. Your neck turning may have been tight so long you do not even realize what normal is anymore.

Massage your sternocleidomastoid muscles and you will turn your neck more freely. Usually, people leave the therapy session able to turn their neck further. They climb into their cars and can suddenly turn to check their car mirrors using their necks instead of their trunks.

Finally, many practitioners can free up your tight side neck muscles using many techniques. The problem is that, once loosened, the sternocleidomastoid muscles do not want to stay where they are put. They re-stiffen as poor posture and life stressors take hold again. Consequently, to keep these muscles loose, you need to be in control instead of relying on your health care provider.

Therefore, you need to frequently check your neck turning every so often to prevent it from tightening up. How often? I usually recommend a five-second turn to the right and to the left done five times a day. Exercise needs to be easy to do and easy to keep up with. Five ten second checks throughout the day add up to less than one minute a day to monitor your neck function. You develop a mindset to remind yourself to turn your neck throughout your day. As a result, you reap much benefit from minimal time investment.

If you do not check frequently, your neck tightens unbeknownst to you.  You are on your way for a headache or jaw re-tightening. Remember, you brush your teeth twice a day to keep bad things from happening to your teeth and gums. Your head and jaw benefit from the same regular attention.


Yes, there are always precautions! Always pay attention to make sure your neck exercises are safe and effective.

Firstly, you want to turn your neck to the right when massaging your left sternocleidomastoid. Why? You want to stay away from the front of your neck where blood vessels, voice box, lymph nodes and other sensitive structures are located. Therefore, when you turn your neck, you move those structures out of the way. Never forcibly move the neck!

Secondly, keep your massage on the upper half of your sternocleidomastoid. You can address most of your headache and jaw issues at this portion of the muscle further back on the side of your neck. Do not neglect the upper part of the muscles behind your ear.

In addition, make sure you are really turning your neck in as much of a “pure” rotation as you can. If you tilt your neck instead of turning it, you are more likely to compress your neck joints and irritate them.

Of course, any non-muscular, sharp pain means you stop massage and re-think. Avoid any unpleasant symptoms such as dizziness, visual disturbance, or increased headache or eye pain.

Consider that one-third of your lymph nodes are in the head and neck. Enlarged lymph nodes signal that there is a disease process your body is fighting. Cancer is always the dreaded disease to be aware of. However, your lymph node tenderness may mean nothing more than that you are fighting off an infection. The lymph node tenderness fades as the infection passes.

Some of your lymph nodes lie within your sternocleidomastoid muscle. Most of those lymph nodes are in the lower half of the sternocleidomastoid. You also have lymph nodes under your armpit area which can harbor trouble if tender and/or enlarged. Check with your doctor to rule out serious conditions.

Last, But Not Least

Finally, check with your healthcare providers before you embark on new techniques. As your coaches, they should help you to do techniques independently. Once you learn to do the techniques properly by yourself you will benefit for years.



-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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