Sunday, October 13, 2013

Another Tool in the Headache Toolbox: Arms

  As you may remember, headaches are particularly problematic because of the cascading effect of trigger points referring pain to other trigger points, which refer pain to still other trigger points, which refer pain to the head.  It is really hard to track down the culprit at any given time. 

  Quite by accident, I found that when I worked some trigger points in my arms, the pain referred straight up to either the side of the neck or up the back of my neck to the back of my head.  Using this knowledge, I have sometimes been able to lessen my headache's intensity or make it go away altogether by working trigger points in my arms.

  There are so many trigger points in the arm, and they are so close together that it would probably not be practical to try to identify just a couple of trigger points to work.  Instead, systematically work your arms, front and back, from wrist to shoulder.  Proceed more cautiously on the inside of your arms as they are very sensitive. 

  I have found using a bouncy ball that is around 2 inches in diameter gets most trigger points.*  I like to use a smaller ball (around 1 inch) to get into deeper spots and tight places. 

  Using a ball against the wall is my favorite method, but if you prefer, you can use it on a table, or even a chair arm.  You may also be able to use the ball in the palm of the opposing hand. 

There will be quite a few trigger points on the side of the upper arm. 

Using a 2-inch ball on the upper arm.

Working on the lower arm. 

Don't forget the trigger points right above the tip of the elbow.

Some trigger points in my lower arm refer up to the side of my neck. 

Using the one-inch ball on the forearm.  I normally would have my body weight pressing against the arm. 
  After working the trigger points, heat rice or flaxseed packs if you have them, and place them on your arms and shoulders for a few minutes afterward.  Then move your arms through their full range of motion a couple of times. 

  Meanwhile, take care of those arms and hands of yours.  The fact that we can type very quickly and easily with our modern keyboards will end up a disadvantage if we do not give our muscles a break.  We often type for long periods:  45 minutes, 2 hours, perhaps more, without stopping.  We may not even necessarily notice it in our hands or arms, but we are majorly stressing those muscles. 

  I type on a MacBook Air and it is nice and light and I can take it about anywhere.  I can have it on my lap for long stretches because it is not too heavy.  In my case, my wrists and hands hardly move, but my fingers jump around the keyboard.  Although the entire arm will be affected by this, the front-line muscles are the muscles in the forearm: The flexors and extensors of the fingers.  If I don't stop from time to time, my forearm muscles become incredibly tight.  I was amazed at how tight they were the first time I worked those trigger points. 

  Here are some suggestions to help take care of your hands and hopefully reduce your headaches:
Take breaks about every 20 minutes or so.  Remove your hands from the keyboard, push away from your desk and take a break.  Do one of the following: 

1) Shake your arms out.  Drop your arms and shake them (like a rag doll) for a few seconds.  Alternatively, you can hold them straight up and shake them.  Then go back to your typing.  It doesn't take that much time. 

Another break activity is to 2) clasp your hands together and reach your arms forward, turning your hands outward to expose the palms, and then upward over your head.  Be careful in the beginning with this stretch.  If your muscles are overly tight, you may stretch too far and injure yourself.  You don't want to overdo it.  Any stretch you feel should feel good.  If it is feeling painful at all, back off and don't stretch that far until you have worked some trigger points. 

3) Drop your hands to your side, or rest them on the chair arms, and lean your head back in your chair and close your eyes.  (If you can't do this comfortably, you need a better chair.)  Rock back and forth a couple of times if you have a chair that will rock. 

4) Get up and walk across the room or into another room.  Get a drink of water, use the restroom, let the cat out, etc. 

5) Work a few trigger points. 

  Another note about headaches.  Some people, like me, are particularly susceptible to temperature.  The problem is, I don't always know that I am cold until I reach over with my hand and feel my arm or face.  Cold activates trigger points.  Check your arm temperature from time to time and cover your arms to get them warm.  Cold arms could be kickstarting or exacerbating your headache. 

  Recently, my husband and I went on a get-away where we spent many hours of many days traveling in the car.  I discovered that having cold air-conditioning blowing on me could cause an instant headache.  My husband would sometimes notice it before I did.  I would say, "Oh my head hurts," and he would say, "Is that air conditioner blowing cold air on you?  Are you getting too cold?" We would turn it down or off, and my headache would subside.  My ears and face were particularly vulnerable. Because it was hot outside, we needed the air conditioning on at least part of the time.  So, I resorted to wrapping a towel around my head and ears, and I used a jacket to cover my arms; that helped until we could turn the air conditioner down. 

  I also found out that sometimes when I have a headache, I can make it more tolerable if I wrap a medium towel snugly against my hairline.  I overlap the towel on itself and clip it with a claw-type hair clip. 

*I have been able to get this size out of Golden Corral's gumball-type machines--they cost four quarters each, and there is a chance that you will get a 2-for-one breakfast coupon instead, so be forewarned.  If you get a ball that looks like a soccer ball or other sport ball, try again.  They are too slippery.  You want one that feels a bit more rubbery.  If the ball is too slippery, you will have to push down harder and it won't be as effective.  

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Assuming a Neutral Position

Today, I would like to discuss assuming a neutral position.  You might think that I am going to get political here, but I'm not.

Think of an automobile in neutral.  When the gear shift is in neutral, no gears are engaged.  As I understand it, the gears are totally detached from the operation of the vehicle.  In a neutral position, the gears are not doing any work to move the car forward or backward.  You might say that the gears are "resting."

Our muscles also benefit from time in a "neutral" position.

When you rest, are you really resting?

There is a relationship between the "neutral" position and achieving actual rest.  If muscles are partially engaged, they will not be resting.  The continual fatigue of these muscles will lead to trigger points that are very hard to get rid of.

Try an experiment, when you lie down to go to sleep, focus on each area of your body.  Note if it feels rested or if it still feels tense.  What happens if you consciously encourage that part of your body to rest?  Does it feel comfortable?  Or does it feel like it cannot disengage?

You may need to arrange pillows to help support areas that seem unable to release.  For example, if you are a side sleeper, a pillow between your legs can be just the ticket for your hips and legs.  Make sure that it is long enough to support knees and ankles.  Experiment with pillow height until you find one that can hold your legs in "neutral."

You can put a pillow behind your back and in front of your body to help support those muscles.  A pillow to hug is also a good option to help your arm and shoulder muscles to assume a more neutral position.

It is also important to make sure that your neck is parallel to the bed.

Side sleeper.  Both neck and head are parallel to bed.  This is a good neutral position. 
Proper support for the head can be tricky to achieve and it is a very individual thing.  In my case, my neck area, where I need higher support, is fairly short, and my head area, where I need lower support is longer.  If the pillow is too big, the poofiness sometimes lifts my head too high and takes my neck out of the neutral position.

Side sleeper.  The pillow is too big.  The head is being forced up by the top of the pillow.  This is not a neutral position.
The same thing can happen if the pillow is too low.

Side sleeper.  Started out with good support for neck, but the pillow is too low and the weight of the head takes it out of neutral.
I find that I need to use two different pillows to achieve the correct balance for me.

When you consider that headaches are often caused by trigger points in the neck muscles, you can understand the importance of getting the right balance here.  It is definitely worth the investment if you can find a pillow or pillows that enable your body to rest in a neutral position.

If you sleep on your back, try a fairly low pillow between your legs to slightly elevate the insides of the knees, and a low, comfortable pillow under your neck for support.  Make sure the pillow is not under your shoulders.  They need to rest, too.  If your shoulders are lifted up all night, this is hard on the pectoral (chest) muscles because it keeps them shortened all night, and on the various shoulder and back muscles because it keeps them stretched all night.  You want them to be in neutral. (Sometimes a lightweight, rolled-up towel is just right for under the neck.)

If you sleep on your stomach, I understand this is the hardest on your neck muscles.  It is impossible to put the neck in a truly neutral position because your neck will be turned to one side or the other, stretching one side of the neck and shortening the other side.  If you must sleep on your stomach, use as low a pillow as possible.  You might also try sleeping on your side with a couple of pillows arranged to support your stomach.  That way you can get the feel of sleeping on your stomach without actually being on your stomach. 

As you experiment with each position, notice the difference.  I am often surprised at how much tension is in my body when I am supposedly resting.  No wonder I have awakened many times feeling like I have not rested at all!

When it is time for bed, taking the time to arrange things so your body will be properly supported and in a genuine "neutral" position is a wonderful gift to give yourself.    Be sure to be awake enough when you are going to bed to do this.  If you just crash into bed exhausted (and I know many of you do), you may end up stuck with whatever position you landed in, and it may not be a good one.