In my Physiotherapy practice I treat 100’s of patients a year for headaches. Many of these have recurring neck pain and stiffness as well as headaches. I teach riding and very many riders admit to suffering from headaches. Riders tend to get neck pain and headache after riding at the end of the day. Unless there is a medical cause then most headaches are what we call ‘cervicogenic’ (cervico means neck and genic means origin of) so cervicogenic means the headache starts from the neck and are caused by the neck joints and muscles. The upper two joints are the major cause of headaches because the nerves that supply the head, temples and eyes are related to the upper two neck joints.
Headaches that originate from the neck are due to the nerves being squeezed or pressured by the joints and or muscles of the upper neck. There are many other causes of headaches. This article is only talking about cervicogenic headache (start from the upper neck) not headaches of any other cause. It is important to be assessed by a Physiotherapist and or a Doctor to determine if your headaches are cervicogenic or other.
Poor neck posture and poor general posture will nearly always result in headache, given enough time. Repetitive behaviors and postures resulting in the neck being in a poor posture will result in headaches. These postures are the positions we use in our daily work and in our riding posture.
So what is the Relationship between the horse rider and headaches?
The ultimate poor neck posture comes from the round shoulder posture. A person with round shoulders on the ground will have round shoulders in the saddle. When the shoulders are forward and so called round then the neck will be in a forward poking chin posture. This posture puts the upper neck in an extended position and this squeezes the joints, nerves and muscles. Over a period of time the joints become stiff and painful the muscles shorten and the nerves become inflamed. The nerve then refers the pain into the head as a headache. The increased pressure riding in a round shoulder posture will increase the pressure and hence nerve pain. Horse riding is a major cause of headaches. All other activities associated with horses can put pressure on the neck as well.
Many teenager’s posture is unfortunately the norm. Their shoulders are slumped, their chin is poking forward and their upper neck is in a jammed closed position. Many do not use any of their postural muscles and are just hanging off their joints. Many people spend many hours in a similar posture. Driving, computer work house work, are just a few of the activities that reproduce this posture. As horse riders we then adapt the same posture in the saddle. Horse riders get told to sit up and put your shoulders back.
How do you fix it?
The easy quick answer is to straighten up, correct your posture and manage your mobility. The long answer is to educate yourself and mange it with knowledge. First of all, see a Physiotherapist and have a professional assessment. Learn how and why you adopt the postures you do and then become educated on how to fix yourself and manage your pain with posture management. Not many therapists will be able to relate your headaches to horse riding unless they know about the horse riding posture. Very few therapists can relate to the muscles used in horse riding or the amount of skill required to ride well. Remember to the non horse rider it looks so easy. You just sit there!
To manage headaches as a rider can be easy.
The control of headaches in horse riders is the same as for all people; however I put an increased emphasis on particular features of treatment, because I am a horse rider. If you have been assessed and your problems are not too severe, but are chronic in nature, that is, they keep returning, then these simple exercises will help. This must be regarded as basic advice only. To control headaches your upper neck joints must have mobility. Your muscles must have strength and endurance. You must have strong core stability as well. The deep core muscle strength will reinforce the correct upper neck posture. I start with the core muscles on every patient I treat for headaches. The success of management without this knowledge and strength is always limited. This is why chiropractic treatment (and or other) is very come back come back.
I give simple but effective stretching exercises and I educate patients about their posture. I advice all my horse riding pupils to follow the Applied Posture Riding program.
Simple Stretches to gain neck mobility
Stand tall, clasp your hands behind your back and tilt your head so your ear moves towards your shoulder. This stretch can hurt so take care.
Stand tall, close your eyes and turn your head so your chin moves towards your shoulder.
Push your chin with the opposite hand to force the stretch more. Feel the stretch and or some pain in your neck. Don’t increase the headache pain with this stretch. Obviously do both sides and if it makes you worse see a Physiotherapist. Hold for 10-20 seconds ease off and repeat. Do these stretches little and often and do them when you are well, don’t wait for stiffness and headache to return. Manage good mobility and keep pain away.