Nov 9, 2021
Pain & Injury

Tightness at the base of the skull? Massage these muscles

Tightness at the base of the skull? Massage these muscles

You're likely to be sitting at your desk when it strikes: a slow, throbbing neck pain that feels like a kink at the base of your skull. Sometimes, the pain might feel like a sharp electric shock. At this point, you're likely to perform a couple of neck stretches for pain relief.

The pain is likely to radiate up your head, making your temples tender. It may spread to your shoulders and travel down your back, causing tingling and numbness in your arms.

The pain is caused by tension headaches which result from trigger points, and muscle tension builds up in the muscles surrounding the head and the neck. Simply put: you have tight shoulders and a stiff neck.

anatomy of muscles at the base of the skull

Why are my back of the neck muscles so tight?

Technology is neck pain's primary culprit. Our reliance on technology puts enormous strain on our necks. We usually tend to move our heads out of alignment when using a cellphone or a laptop by rounding forward.

Keeping your arms in front of you contracts the muscles in your chest - the pec minor muscles, which round your shoulders forward. Tightening pec pulls your shoulders forward, and the body compensates for this development by pulling your head forward.

As your head leans forward, your bones are no longer doing the work of keeping you upright: it’s all on your neck muscles. Your new forward head posture throws off your head and spine alignment. Your neck muscles now carry the bulk of the weight of your head. The additional load places undue stress on the suboccipital muscles at the back of neck, resulting in pain and tightness.

How to relieve pain at the base of the skull

There's a group of muscles, the suboccipital muscles at the base of your skull, and muscle knots in these muscles can be responsible for tension headaches. These are four pairs of muscles that facilitate the subtle movements between your head and the neck.

They provide postural support and allow the neck's rotational and extension movements. The muscles are innervated by occipital nerves, a series of nerves running from the spinal cord to your scalp.

Poor posturing such as slouching and forward head posture builds tension in the suboccipital muscles. Sore and tender suboccipital muscles irritate and inflame the occipital nerves, leading to a condition known as occipital neuralgia. The condition manifests as pain at the base of the skull or in the back of the neck. Most people turn to neck stretches for pain relief, with only temporary results.

Direct, prolonged pressure on the suboccipital muscles is the best way to relieve pain at the base of the skull. Press into the muscles and hold for 30 to 90 seconds.

Deep pressure massage for the neck

Sore suboccipital muscles feel like wearing a painful crown or band wrapping around your head. When tense, these muscles may compress the nerve that exits at the base of your skull, triggering tensional headaches. Prolonged deep pressure, specifically on these spots, helps to relieve muscle tension and the resultant headache.

Relieving sore and tense suboccipital muscle requires consistent pressure. Rubbing on trigger points in the neck can actually activate them, creating increased pain in the long run.

Applying mild to moderate pressure on the muscles produces a "hurts so good" sensation. The intensity of this sensation decreases as the muscles soften and relax, taking away your headache and your pain.

Trigger points in the neck and traps can cause tension headaches

Working on your laptop for a lengthy period may be the norm. But an hour of typing on the computer may cause a tensional headache. Hunching over the computer creates trigger points in the neck and upper traps, leading to tension headaches.

Trigger points are knotted muscles that trigger pain in another part of the body. If you have muscle knots in your neck or upper trap muscles from hunching or poor posture, they might refer pain to your head, giving you a headache. Pain medication might help relieve the headache (symptom) but does little to solve the actual problem.

trigger points that cause headaches

Tight chest muscles and rounded shoulders can cause neck pain

The pectoralis minor (pec minor) is a tiny muscle that connects your shoulder to the rib cage. It helps to stabilize, rotate, and support all your shoulder movements. Poor posture causes the pec muscles to become tight and shortened.

Tight and short pec muscles pull your shoulders in towards your chest. Besides rounding your shoulders, shortened pec muscles lead to the upper crossed syndrome, a condition characterized by deformed neck, shoulder, and chest muscles.

When the pecs are tight and short, they pull the shoulders in toward the chest and can also contribute to forward head posture. This turns on the upper trap resulting in the creation of tension knots and trigger points in the upper trap muscles. Naturally, most people opt for a shoulder rub to soften and relax the tight muscles. However, pressing and massaging the knots in the shoulder muscle amounts to treating the symptoms.

Your real problem is the tension in the pec minor and the suboccipital muscles. Remember, the suboccipital muscles are close to the spine and buried underneath the upper traps. Releasing the pec minor (with pressure and not just chest stretches) and the muscles at the base of your skulls is critical to eliminating muscle knots in your traps. If the upper traps still need attention after addressing the neck and chest, then release them third in the sequence.

Massage or chest stretches?

Stretching is a popular way to relieve muscle tension, but it may not help tension tightness. Stretches help to lengthen the muscle, which improves blood circulation, muscle repair, and increases the range of motion.

However, stretching doesn't work well on knotted muscles. The muscles might elongate just a tiny bit but retain the tension as soon as you stop. Typically, your brain holds muscle tension to protect you from pain and injuries.

Likewise, rubbing or massaging a muscle produces short-lived effects. Rubbing improves the muscle's pliability and circulation to ease some of the tension.

After a while, the effects will wear off, and the fibers retract to their original state. It might feel good to rub or stretch a muscle holding tension, but it won't help to release and relax tension longterm.

Neck massage or neck stretches for pain

While stretching may feel good, pressing on muscle is the most effective way to release muscle knots. Applying prolonged pressure, about 30 to 90 seconds, with your fingers or a tool produces the best result.

Initially, pressing on a muscle elicits some pain, but after 30 seconds, the pain dissipates as the muscles relax. Your brain instructs the muscle fibers to stop contracting and relax, producing long-term results. The effects can last for hours, days, or even months to allow you to lead a pain-free existence.

After you've released tension using pressure, you may find that your neck feels less tight and can stretch into a greater range of motion more easily. These effects will last longer compared to stretching alone.

A rotated pelvis may be causing neck and shoulder pain

Anterior pelvis rotation refers to a pelvis pulled forward due to tension at the front of the hips. Tight hip flexors pull the pelvic bone forward and throw the tailbone and pelvic bone joint out of alignment. As a result, the joint creates tension, gets irritated, and becomes painful.

Anterior hip rotation changes the way the ball fits in the hip joint socket to alter the entire trajectory of your leg. More importantly, a twisted hip limits the rotation of the spinal column and affects alignment higher up the spine. It leads to lower back pain and nerve irritation that affects your entire back and shoulders.

Our bodies have a primary core (hips/abdomen) and a secondary cores (neck/shoulders). Tension in either of these cores can create pain in other areas of the body. Therefore, it's critical to keep our cores strong, properly aligned, and relaxed to ensure our spines, limbs, and nervous systems work properly.

Hip flexors are a crucial part of our primary core. The primary core comprises the abdominal muscles, back muscles, and hip flexors. If your body is under stress or traumatized, it holds tension in the primary core around your pelvis. Unfortunately, tension and pulling in the primary core irritate the nervous system.

Your neck and shoulders form the secondary core to support the upper part of the body. If you're stressed, you're likely to have tension in the pec minor, the tiny muscle connecting your shoulders to your chest.

Tight pec minor pulls you forward, resulting in rounded shoulders. Rounding shoulders pull your head forward and misalign your spine, which twists and irritates your nervous system. The nervous system irritation is more pronounced if you have more tension on one side than the other.

Misalignment in the head and neck junction creates tension at the base of the skull. Carrying tension at the bottom of the head and in pec minor severely irritates the brain, brain stem, spinal cord.

As a result, your nervous system is in a constant state of fight or flight mode. Any efforts to release muscle tension won't work when your nervous system is in this state constantly.

Releasing and aligning the primary core is an important first step before issues in the upper body, neck, and shoulders can be resolved for good.

illustration of how a twisted pelvis affects the entire body

Stress and neck pain

There's a direct connection between stress and neck pain. When you're stressed, you're likely to curl up into a fetal position with your head jutted forward, shoulders rounded, and knees tucked into your chest. This position activates the muscles at the base of your skull, your chest (pec minor), and your hip flexors.

Even if you don't actually go into the fetal position, these are the most common areas where people develop muscle tension as a result of stress.

Unfortunately, all these positions produce muscle tension and irritate the nervous system. Stress creates muscle tension at the back of the neck leading to neck pain. Absolutely use additional relaxation efforts such as warm baths, meditation, or a walk in nature to affect your stress level. But don’t forget about also releasing the patterns that have formed in your muscles!

How to relax tight neck and shoulder muscles

Addressing muscle tension in the primary and secondary core is the most effective way to relax tight neck and shoulder muscles. In the primary core, you need to release the iliacus and psoas muscles at the front of the hips with a specialized tool like the the Mark (formerly the Hip Hook). At the back of the hip, you should release the piriformis and deep hip rotators with a massage ball, such as the Orbit.

In the secondary core, you release tension in the base of the skull and pec minor. Some people try to do this with tennis balls, but this is ineffective because it is too soft and not shaped properly to deliver precise pressure where you need it. We highly recommend using a specific tool, such as the Range, that is anatomically-shaped to access these small but mighty muscles.

Applying direct, prolonged pressure is the most effective way to release muscle tension. Prolonged pressure on a muscle knot causes the muscle to soften and relax, which signals the brain it's safe to release tension in those muscles. You can apply direct, prolonged pressure with your fingers or a dedicated tool.

Eliminate tension headaches today

Tools designed to apply pressure like hands and fingers work best when releasing muscle tension. It provides the specific angular pressure you need to reach and release the sore spots. The best tension release tools allow you to apply prolonged pressure without sliding or rolling, and are angled to provide precise, targeted pressure. They can handle the pressure, adapt to your body, and isolate the small yet critical muscles.

We recommend a product called the Range (formerly the Nuckle): it's designed by a physical therapist to release, relax, and realign these specific muscles that become tight and affect your head, neck, and shoulders (these are the suboccipitals, pec minor, and upper traps). With three widths and six angles, it can adjust to every body and apply clinically effective specific pressure to relax tight muscles and reduce pain.

woman using the Nuckle tool to release tension in her neck near the base of the skull

Commonly asked questions about how to fix forward head posture and tech neck

Why is the back of the neck tight?

The back of the neck is often tight because of over-activation of those muscles caused from forward head posture, looking down, and tension due to stress. Rounded shoulders due to shortened and tight pec minor muscles can place additional strain on these muscles at the base of the skull.

How do I fix nerd neck?

You can fix nerd neck by releasing muscle tension at the base of your skull and in the pec minor. Applying direct, prolonged pressure with your fingers or a specialized tool to these areas helps to relieve muscle tension and improve posture.

How to correct forward head posture?

You can correct forward head posture by first releasing muscle tension in your pec minor and the suboccipital muscles at the base of the skull. This gives you a better opportunity to get into a good posture and, over time, strengthen your postural muscles to maintain proper spinal alignment. Without releasing these key areas first, you'll always feel like you're fighting against tension and forcing your posture.