One of the great benefits of being a Yoga Tune Up® teacher is the shared knowledge constantly crossing the globe from YTU teacher to YTU teacher – literally! This latest question posed by YTU teacher Nathania Apple received such detailed and differently nuanced responses from multiple teachers that they each deserve their own blog post.

Here’s Nathania’s original question:

“I have a couple of students who experience nausea and headache after using the YTU Therapy Balls on upper shoulders. Sometimes the effect is immediate, sometimes it occurs later in the day. One student tells me it sometimes triggers a migraine. Can anyone shed any light on what’s happening physiologically?”

Our first responder is Lillee Chandra, with her input on the suboccipitals:

It is not uncommon to fall head over heels for the Therapy Balls, with their powerful ability to decrease pain, increase joint mobility and improve performance.  What is painfully ironic, however, is to have your love affair with Therapy Ball rolling abruptly end because you feel worse than when you started.  When wicked body responses like headaches and/or migraines strike after rolling the upper back, what are the reasons? Ball rolling is supposed to be therapeutic after all, right? How could releasing trigger points TRIGGER a headache?

In order to uncover what is really happening beneath the many layers of the upper back and decode the headache mystery, we must “deepen” our relationship with anatomy, specifically the attachment points of some key head and neck muscles.

There are many muscles in our upper back and neck that make up our physical depth. Many of these muscles (and their corresponding myofascial meridians) share ONE common attachment site: the posterior inferior skull known as the occiput.

The neighborly muscles that merge and converge onto this similar real estate of the head are the upper trapezius, levator scapula, any muscle with the word capitis in it (since capitis means head) and the suboccipitals. Luckily, these shared attachment points mean that if we aim for the deepest of these muscles, the suboccipitals, we can create a generally positive affect in them all! And since headache sufferers frequently hold chronic tension in their suboccipitals, intelligent ball rolling moves in these areas are imperative to a positive therapeutic outcome and long lasting change.

The small suboccipitals at the base of your skull need their own self-massage routine.

The suboccipitals are four small muscles located deep in the back of the head at the junction where the skull meets the top of spine.  Anatomically, these four short muscles attach from various places along C-1 and C-2 in the cervical neck to the occiput of the skull.  Their major role is to provide proprioceptive information about the head and upper cervical position.  In other words, the suboccipitals control finer movements of the head and neck.

The health of the upper back relies heavily on the cooperation of these smaller and deeper postural muscles. If these areas remain un-rolled, they can become tighter and even spasm whenever changes that loosen and lengthen have ensued downtown or in the larger superficial muscles. These tightening effects can be reflexive either way – meaning, headaches can be caused by tangles in the suboccipitals OR headaches can CAUSE tangles in the suboccipitals!

So either way you roll it, one must address the relationships between completely different muscles from superficial to deep as well as within a single muscle itself.  For example, rolling out a single muscle from end to end in the case of the trapezius involves more than just two attachment points.  But thorough anatomically driven efforts pay off well, especially in folks who commonly fall victim to headaches and migraines.  Leave extra time in your ball rolling session for techniques that integrate the multiple muscle layers as well as address the entire muscle itself.

A side note: I am not advocating digging a road to China by using incredibly deep pressure on the balls to get to the occipital muscles of the head. Rather, to work deeply means to work specifically. And to work specifically means to know where the muscles you are rolling attach down to bone and how those muscles may relate to other muscles with similar attachment sites or how they may relate to attachment points on the same muscle.

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Read “Stop Migraines Before They Start With YTU Therapy Balls”