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Planning Retirement Online

Home Exercise and Rehab

October 2012


Gina John Gina John is a Pilates Practitioner and Registered Osteopath who has spent many years offering help and advice, especially to the over 50 age group.

She is founder of The Osprey Clinic in the St. Johns Wood area of London and now specialises in Home Exercise and Rehabilitation Programmes. For further advice on exercising safely, and a selection of exercise films for general fitness and medical conditions, visit the website:




This month Gina looks at whether exercises can help alleviate headache symptoms

Q: I suffer from headaches regularly and wondered if exercise may help the symptoms? 

Headache is a common symptom for many and although in most cases it is benign, it can also be a symptom of other more serious conditions. It is important to visit you G.P if you suffer with headaches regularly or if they are becoming increasingly severe, to determine the underlying cause.

A more serious condition may be diagnosed, if a headache occurs suddenly and with an intensity which you have not previously experienced; or if accompanied by a very stiff neck, fever, nausea, vomiting, weakness, numbness, slurred speech or confusion.

If you have suffered a blow to your head, such as in a car accident, it is advisable to go directly to your local hospital’s emergency department.

Tension headache is the most common type and occurs with excessive tension in the muscles around the neck, face and eye sockets. People in high-pressured or stressful work or those who use a computer for many hours a day are most affected. Typically, this type of headache lasts a few hours but some people may suffer for several days. Symptoms can certainly be relieved by stretching and relaxation exercises.

Migraine is a severe headache, characterized by throbbing or pulsating pain at one side or the front of the head, and commonly associated with nausea or vomiting and sensitivity to light and sounds. Symptoms often start with visual problems, a stiff neck and shoulders, or numbness in the face or extremities, which come on when a person starts to relax following a period of tension. It is therefore common for migraine to start at the weekend.

Migraines are associated with a period of blood vessel constriction, associated with a reduction in the chemical seratonin, followed by an expansion of blood vessels which causes the headache symptoms.

Patients often associate the onset of migraine with certain dietary triggers such as alcohol, caffeine cheese and chocolate. Food and drink containing tyramine, which forms from the breakdown of amino acids, is a known trigger for migraine. This may be present in any aged, dried, fermented, salted, smoked or pickled foods. A rapid decrease in blood sugar levels, by eating insufficient food, followed by a sudden increase in sugar levels by eating ‘fast food’ and sugary snacks may also be a precursor to migraine.

Exercise is beneficial for migraine sufferers in helping to control tension during stressful periods and maintaining a balance in the neurological system, thereby dampening down the excessive changes in blood vessels constriction and expansion. The constriction of blood vessels is mediated via the ‘autonomic nervous system’ and nerve ganglions, which operate as junction boxes, adjacent to the spine can be affected by deep muscle tension.

Women commonly experience migraine-type headaches in association with increases in oestrogen levels such as when taking hormone replacement therapy, or changes from lower to higher oestrogen levels, as experienced in the menstrual cycle. Since hormones circulate throughout the body via blood vessels, symptoms can be helped by affecting the ‘autonomic nervous system’ with exercise as explained above. Also, arteries and capillaries may be compressed directly from muscular tension, especially in the neck and shoulders and exercise to relieve tension will help to balance the circulation of hormones.

Cluster headaches are severe attacks of excruciating pain on one side of the head, as well as behind the eye. Cluster headaches are mostly experienced by men, and there is an association with smoking and alcohol consumption, as well as an extreme increase in body temperature.

Symptoms may start in the early morning and the intensity of pain is difficult to tolerate. Sufferers experience several attacks every day, lasting from 15 minutes to a few hours, over a period of weeks or months. This is followed by a pain-free period before the headaches return. This pattern may reoccur after several months or years.
Although the cause of cluster headache is not well understood, there is evidence of blood vessel expansion following a painful episode, and irregularities with the ‘autonomic nervous system’ may be a contributory factor. Therefore, exercise which focus on controlled breathing techniques and release of muscular tension may be helpful.

The following exercises, when practised daily, may benefit anyone suffering from the types of headaches discussed.

Breathing Exercise
Start by breathing in fully, expanding your abdomen. Then, purse your lips and exhale through your mouth, very slowly. Keep exhaling until your body demands the next intake of breath.
Repeat 5 times, whenever you feel a stressed or anxious.

Chair Twist
Sit up straight, with your feet flat on the floor, about a foot apart. Turn your body to the right, placing your left hand on your right knee. Hold the position for three breaths and then repeat, turning the body to the left and placing the right hand on the left knee. Repeat three times.
Chair Twist

Neck Circles
Lying down with your head on a pillow, make a small circle with the tip of your nose, 10 times clockwise and 10 times anticlockwise. Avoid lifting your chin to the ceiling.

Neck and chest stretch
Stand with your right side about a foot away from a wall with the palm of your right against the wall, and fingers pointing away from the body. Turn your body to the left and look towards your left shoulder. Feel a stretch from the right arm, across the front of the shoulder, chest and neck. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat the stretch to the other left side.

Neck and Chest Stretch

Please send your questions for future columns, or feedback, by email to Gina John on

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