If you spend most of your time in front of a computer or are under continual stress, the muscles in the back of your head, or the occipital region, tend to stiffen. A tight neck can lead to tension headaches and a vulture neck, in which your head and jaw jut forward. If you perform stretching and strengthening exercises for your occipital muscles, you can relieve neck tension and improve your posture.
The Sub-occipital Muscles
The sub-occipital muscles are four little muscles on each side and just under the back of your head. Each muscle links the first two vertebrae to your skull and run at different angles. The top three occipital muscles contribute to nodding or the tilting of your head. The bottom occipitals connect the first two vertebrae and help to limit the rotation of your head. If you turn your head to the left or right as far as it will go, these muscles activate to stop the swivel. Pushing the rotation may cause a twinge of pain on the side of your neck. The sub-occipital muscles can fatigue and tighten when contracted for prolonged periods of time during those times, for example, when you’re under emotional stress.
Relaxing the Occipital Muscles
Growing aware of the occipital muscles can help you to relax and stretch them. For example, sit with your back erect but relaxed. As you allow your bottom jaw to drop open, gently lift and relax your head as if it’s attached to a balloon. The back of your head should slightly tilt back. Then slightly nod your head forward, pointing your nose downward. Repeat the lifting and nodding of your head for about 20 seconds. Although the exercise covers a short range of motion, it can help you to relax the occipitals throughout your day.
In the same way that you stretch your neck, you can loosen and elongate the occipital muscles with gentle stretches. For example, begin by sitting upright in a chair. Rotate your head about 45 degrees to the right until your nose points in front of your armpit. Extend your right arm overhead, and then bend your elbow and grip the bottom of your skull with your fingertips. The underside of your right forearm should rest against the back of your head. Slowly roll the base of your skull up and forward, allowing your face to tilt down. Hold the stretch for a count of 10, then release and return to starting position. Perform three reps and then switch sides and repeat. Because the occipital muscles are delicate, avoid jerking movements. If you feel any pain in your neck, stop the exercise.
To strengthen the occipital muscles, the chin tuck is an effective exercise to prevent neck pain and can be performed several times throughout your workday. If you repeat the chin tuck on a regular basis, it can improve your posture. Sit upright with your head and spine aligned. Place your fingertips on the front of your chin, keeping your mouth closed. Maintaining a straight neck, exhale and gently press your chin backward. Allow your head to move under the pressure until you feel the pull of your occipitals at the base of your skull. You may feel as if you’re creating a double chin, which means you’re doing the stretch correctly. If the muscles in the back of your neck are extremely tight, avoid stretching beyond your threshold of pain.
- Dr. Charles Blum: Passive TMJ Exercises
- The Pain Clinic: Exercises – Head, Neck, Shoulder, Arms
- Muscle Exercises Encyclopedia; Oscar Moran and Isabel Arechabala
- Spine-Health: Neck Strengthening Exercises; Gavin Morrison
- The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief; Clair Davies, David G. Simons, Amber Davies
- The Balanced Body: A Guide to Deep Tissue and Neuromuscular Therapy; Donald W. Scheumann
Kay Tang is a journalist who has been writing since 1990. She previously covered developments in theater for the "Dramatists Guild Quarterly." Tang graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and political science from Yale University and completed a Master of Professional Studies in interactive telecommunications at New York University.