Bad Posture Causes Headaches. Here's How to Stop Them

Woman with a headache

Bad posture can cause headaches, but the good news is you can alleviate the pain and prevent headaches by training yourself to maintain proper posture. Here's why poor posture causes headaches and what doctors and physical therapists say you can do about it.

A Note About Postural Headaches

This article is about headaches caused by poor posture, not postural headaches. Also known as orthostatic headaches, positional headaches and low-pressure headaches, postural headaches occur when standing or sitting up and typically go away after lying down. They can be caused by blood pressure regulation issues, cerebrospinal fluid leaks and other underlying conditions. Consult your doctor if you believe you might be experiencing postural headaches. 


  • How bad posture causes headaches
  • How to tell if your headaches are caused by poor posture
  • How to prevent headaches from poor posture

BackEmbrace: Comfy, Stylish Posture Support You'll Want to Wear

How bad posture causes headaches

Poor posture can cause headaches in several different ways, including: 

  • Muscular imbalances, stress and tension (which could be due to postural conditions such as kyphosis, forward head posture and tech neck)
  • Pinched nerves
  • Compressed blood vessels
  • Improper breathing patterns
  • Arthritis
  • Aggravated temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder

Posture issues commonly lead to tension headaches and can even cause migraines (American Migraine Foundation). In fact, 14% of adults experience tension-type headaches weekly. From occupational posture (sitting at desks, driving long hours, standing in factories) to looking down at cell phones, it stands to reason that posture plays a role in many of those tension headaches. 

How to prevent back pain when sitting: What doctors say

A person holding their head as if experiencing a tension headache.

"Having poor posture puts strain on the muscles of the neck and upper back, causing them to defensively tense up or go into spasm. Headaches that relate to poor posture are called tension headaches," says Dr. Matt Tanneberg, DC, CSCS, who owns and operates Body Check Chiropractic & Sports Rehabilitation in Scottsdale, AZ. He works with elite athletes from the NFL, MLB, NHL, USA Track and Field, NCAA and high school. "Textbook tension headaches will start at the base of your skull, classically in a throbbing or aching form. From there, the pain can move to your eyes or forehead, as well."

Structural imbalances create tension headaches

Dr. Richard Omel, D.C., is a chiropractor and founder of Humoma, where he teaches patients to move better by improving structural and functional integrity. He says that sitting in confined, rigid and distorted body postures for prolonged periods can lead to structural imbalances such as:

  • Hyperkyphotic thoracic spine (an accentuated curve of the middle back, also known as hunchback)
  • Forward head posture
  • Hyperextension of the cervico-occipital joint (the joined formed between the base of the skull and the top of the neck)

Many large muscles in the upper back and lower neck course upward and attach to the neck and back of the skull, including the: 

  • Upper trapezius
  • Levator scapula
  • Cervical and upper thoracic paraspinals
  • Suboccipital muscles
  • Anterior scalene

When you sit or stand with poor posture, these muscles react by tightening up, which in turn causes tension headaches.

A graphic depicting the muscles of the upper back and neck, with a red area indicating pain at the base of the skull.

"This increase in muscle tension creates a source of irritation over their respective attachment sites on both the neck and occipital region of the skull [the base of the skull]," says Dr. Omel. "These sites of irritation often lead to localized connective tissue inflammation, which triggers reactionary muscular spasm, particularly the suboccipitals at the base of the skull and along the top of the shoulder blades, which can be a source of pain referral to the skull."

Read: "I changed my posture and here's what happened”

Forward head posture leads to occipital neuralgia

Physical and orthopedic therapist Stephen Dunn (MPT, COMT, PMA-CPT), who founded Core Therapy & Pilates in Austin, Texas, says forward head posture is often to blame for headaches. 

“Imagine the head is a 15-lb. bowling ball and it sits on top of a wooden dowel. Now, imagine that bowling ball sitting three inches forward instead of being centered on the dowel. That becomes an immediate problem for the bowling ball and dowel,” he says. 

Types of posture

The same concept applies to the head and spine. For every inch your head moves forward, it exerts an additional 10 lbs. of weight on your spine – specifically, at the base of your neck where the cervical and thoracic spine meet. Muscle imbalances can compress the occipital nerve that runs through that juncture.

How to fix forward head posture: Tips from doctors and physical therapists

“The occipital nerve is a cranial nerve that exits below the skull and just above the first cervical vertebra on both sides of the back of the neck. Compression of this nerve due to forward head causes an irritation of the nerve resulting in a headache known as occipital neuralgia,” Dunn explains. “Once this nerve is compressed and irritated, the pain can occur at the back of the upper neck, behind the eye or anywhere in between.”

Bad posture creates improper breathing patterns

Dr. Logan Thomas, PT, DPT, who founded The Patient Educator, says posture headaches aren’t limited to those who slouch – they also affect those who sit too upright. 

Slouching and forward head posture create headache-inducing muscular imbalances by shortening muscles in the front and lengthening those in the back of the neck. But sitting too upright with a flat back or “military posture” can cause headaches, too, by placing you in an overextended position, causing your ribs to flare out and forcing you to breathe into your belly. 

Three people side by side, one slouching, one in good posture, one too upright.

“The problem with this is that our lungs are in our chest, not our bellies. When we don’t expand our chests upon inhalation, our body will try and figure out a way to get air up there. Our neck muscles, such as the scalenes, sternocleidomastoid and upper trapezius, now kick on to help us breathe,” Dr. Thomas explains. “These muscles attach on our spine and skull and are essentially tugging on our head all day, leading to headaches.”

Can bad posture cause chest pain? Here’s what doctors say

Modern lifestyles are often to blame

“Modern-day lifestyles have led to an increased amount of time spent sitting or standing in front of a computer screen or other electronic device. All of us are spending more time on technology, and it is wreaking havoc on our necks,” says Lara Heimann, physical therapist and creator of the LYT Yoga method. 

Indeed, research indicates that 75% of us spend several hours hunched over our smartphones daily (National Library of Medicine). The problem is becoming more prevalent among young people, too: in one study of more than 200 children and adolescents, 100% of participants overextended their necks while averaging 5 to 7 hours daily on smartphones and other devices. 

Text neck trouble? Here’s how to fix it

Heimann explains that the skull sits on top of the atlas – the first cervical vertebrae – with an opening at its base called the foramen magnum. This is where the brain stem exits and turns into the spinal cord. The spinal cord runs down the spine to the base of the sacrum. Any imbalances in the curvature of the spine can place tension on the spinal cord and directly affect the brainstem, potentially leading to headaches, brain fog and mental fatigue. 

Someone looking down at their phone so that their neck is strained in an unnatural position.

“Without the natural balance of the skull on the atlas, the neck muscles have to constantly work to hold the head up. Think of a constant low pull on a horse’s reins and how that could lead to increased tension and discomfort,” Heimann says. “This strain results in tension, pain and compression of nerves which leads to nerve pain and headaches. If you have constant neck tension, jaw tension and/or headaches and fatigue, a forward head is probably responsible.”

How to tell if your headaches are caused by poor posture

It’s not always easy to identify the root cause of head pain. Here are four ways to see if bad posture might be the cause of your headaches. 

1. Chin tucks

“If performing a chin tuck relieves your headache, then it is a pretty good indication that forward head posture is causing your symptoms,” says Dunn. 

  • Sit up tall and squeeze your shoulder blades together
  • Perform a chin tuck by bringing your head over your spine
  • Bring your chin toward your throat as if holding a bowling ball over a dowel

Repeat 2 to 3 sets of 10 reps each, then check how you feel. If your headache is reduced or alleviated, it’s a good sign that postural strengthening exercises could help. 

 A person performing a chin tuck.

2. The Triple S Test

Heimann created the Triple S test to help her patients identify postural issues. She explains that the upright optimal posture is when the joints of the spine are aligned in such a way that the “Triple S’s” are stacked:

  • Skull
  • Scapulae (shoulder blades)
  • Sacrum (low part of the spine, above the tailbone)

You can use the Triple S to see if bad posture could be causing your headaches:

  • Stand against a wall with knees bent and feet slightly away from the wall
  • Touch your back against the wall at each “S” (skull, scapulae, sacrum)
  • Whichever “S” is most difficult to touch to the wall will reveal where there might be postural deviations

 A person standing with their back to a wall, as described above.

3. Applied pressure

Dr. Omel recommends applying gentle digital (fingertip) pressure to point sensitive regions. If the pressure helps alleviate the pain, it could indicate a postural issue. 

“A common point of sensitivity is over the base of the skull where the smaller suboccipital muscles are located,” Dr. Omel says. “Another sensitive point is over the top corner of the shoulder blades. 

4. Modify your posture

You can modify your posture and see if your headaches go away. You might only notice a little difference at first, but if it helps, you’re probably on the right track. 

“Change your body position to a more upright, balanced position. Once in this upright, balanced position, gently tip your chin and base of the skull up and down like a teeter-totter. This will help to lengthen the involved shortened, contracted muscles associated with a tension-type headache, providing relief,” says Dr. Omel. 

StretchAbility founder Dr. Aigail Regan recommends sitting as tall as possible while supporting your lower back, then pulling your shoulder blades down behind you as if putting your elbows In your opposite back pockets. 

“If you feel pulling and almost a burning sensation at the base of your skull when you do this, your posture may be contributing to headaches,” says Dr. Regan. “In addition, if you look at a side view of your head and neck and see either a ‘hump’ at the base of your neck or see that your ears are in front of your shoulders, your headaches may be posture-related.”

A person sitting tall with lower back support and pulling their shoulder blades down, as described above.

It’s important to remember that there is no one “best” posture for everyone. 

“Posture should be dynamic and constantly moving,” says Dr. Thomas. “Try sitting up straight for a while and slouch for a while. Then find a middle ground. If your headache resolves, then it is most likely related to your posture.”

How to prevent headaches from poor posture

The best way to eliminate and prevent headaches from bad posture is to maintain good posture. When you have proper posture, your spine is structurally aligned and your muscles are balanced, reducing strain, decompressing nerves and allowing your body to function correctly. 

“People can alleviate and prevent headaches from poor posture by addressing their postural habits. The goal is to become familiar and comfortable with the ideal resting neutral sitting posture and uncomfortable with poor sitting posture,” says Dr. Omel.

Guide to proper sitting posture: Doctor-recommended positions

Here are some tips to help you maintain proper posture and alleviate your headaches. 

Exercises and stretches

“Imagine the muscles in the front of the neck are locked in a shortened position and pulling your head forward. We call that locked short. The muscles in the back of the head are then locked long in response. So, by stretching and releasing the locked short tight muscles and following that up with strengthening of the locked long muscles, then we get postural balance,” he says.

Try these exercises and stretches recommended by doctors and physical therapists.

1. Standing supported bilateral posterior mediastinum expansion

Recommend by Dr. Thomas

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, with your hands on a flat surface (chair, counter, computer desk)
  • Round your back and tuck your bottom in
  • Inhale through your nose and gently press your hands down
  • Hold the position for 4 to 5 deep breaths (breath in through your nose, out through your mouth)
  • Complete 5 total reps

2. PRI wall-supported squat with balloon

Recommended by Dr. Thomas

  • Stand with your back to the wall, heels approximately 7 to 10 inches away
  • Hold a small ball between your knees and a balloon in one hand
  • Set your bottom against the wall and bend your knees to slide down the wall
  • Round your back, so your lower back is flat against the wall
  • Shift your left hip back
  • Squeeze the ball with your left knee and inhale
  • Exhale into the balloon and reach your other hand out away from the wall
  • Inhale through your nose, then exhale into the balloon
  • Complete four reps, then repeat on the other side

3. Scapular retraction

Recommended by Dr. Regan

  • Sit upright with your lower back supported
  • Pull your shoulder blades down and back, like you’re putting your elbows in your opposite back pockets
  • Hold for 2 to 3 seconds, then relax
  • Repeat 20 to 30 times, 2 to 3 times daily

4. Sitting chin tuck

Recommended by Dr. Regan

  • Sit upright with your lower back supported
  • Looking straight forward, gently pull your chin in toward your neck, like you’re making a double chin
  • Hold for 1 to 2 seconds, then relax
  • Repeat 10 to 20 times per hour

5. Doorway stretch and strengthening

Recommended by Lara Heimann, PT


  • Stand in a doorway with your arms at 90 degrees, like a field goal
  • Place your forearms on the doorframe and lean forward to stretch the chest 
  • Keep your core muscles tight to stabilize the pelvis and ribs
  • Hold for 30 seconds; repeat 3 to 5 times daily


  • Stand in the doorway as in the stretch
  • Lift your forearms away from the doorframe by squeezing your shoulder blades together without thrusting your ribs
  • Hold for 10 seconds; repeat 10 times

6. Floor stretch and strengthening

Recommended by Lara Heimann. PT


  • Lie on the floor, on your back, with your knees bent
  • Reach your arms to the ceiling, then bring them overhead in line with your ears (without thrusting your ribs)
  • Hold for 20 seconds; repeat 2 to 3 times


  • Lie on the floor as before and reach your arms to the ceiling
  • Make fists and bend your elbows to press into the floor
  • Pull your shoulder blades up toward your chest without thrusting your rubs
  • Hold for 10 seconds; repeat 10 times

7. Bed stretch and strengthening

Recommended by Lara Heimann, PT


  • Lie on your bed with your head draped over the edge yet still supported at the base of the skull
  • Keep your knees bent to maintain length in the spine
  • “Goalpost” your arms, pulling the back of your arms into the bed
  • Roll your head side to side to mobilize the restricted tissues around your neck and stretch your chest
  • Repeat for one minute


  • Prop yourself on your elbows as you lie on a bid
  • Press your hands into the bed to lift your elbows off the bed
  • Slowly bend your elbows to return them to the bed (like a triceps dip)
  • Keep your chest open and prevent your rib cage from thrusting
  • Repeat 10 times

8. Upper trapezius stretch

Recommended by Dr. Tanneberg

  • Look over your shoulder as far as you can, then lower your chin to your chest
  • Hold for 15 to 30 seconds
  • Repeat on the other side

9. Levator scapulae stretch

Recommended by Dr. Tanneberg

  • Lower your ear to your shoulder
  • Hold for 15 to 30 seconds
  • Repeat on the other side

10. Anterior scalene stretch

Recommended by Dr. Tanneberg

  • Look over your shoulder as far as you can, then extend your head back slowly
  • Hold for 15 to 30 seconds
  • Repeat on the other side

11. Upper back extension

Recommended by Stephen Dunn, PT

  • Sit tall at your desk and grasp your hands together behind the base of your skull
  • Open your elbows wide and pull your head toward the ceiling slightly to extend the upper back
  • Repeat 10 times

12. Foam roller chest stretch

Recommended by Stephen Dunn, PT

  • Get a 36” foam roller and lay on it from your head to your tailbone
  • Bend your knees and bring your arms out to the side at about 80 to 90 degrees
  • Relax into it and take deep breaths for 3 to 5 minutes to open your chest
  • Follow this up with scapula stabilization exercises such as rows and lat pulls

13. Seated spinal waves

Recommended by Dr. Omel

  • Sit with an upright posture, so your head is “stacked” directly on top of your spine and your spine directly on top of your pelvis
  • Gently lower your head toward your chest while simultaneously rolling your pelvis backward
  • The end position should result in a “C” shape
  • Maintain this position for several breaths, allowing the muscles along your spine to relax with each exhalation
  • Return to your starting position by gently lifting your chest, neck and head while allowing your pelvis to return to its neutral position
  • Take a deep breath and pause while your head balances on top of your spine
  • Repeat throughout the day to reset your posture

14. Armpit neck stretch

Recommended by Dr. Ormel

  • Sit upright in your chair, then turn your head to the right and look down toward your right armpit
  • Place your right hand over the back of your head
  • Resist pulling your head downward for 3 to 5 seconds
  • Let go for 2 seconds, then pull your head down as far as you comfortably can
  • Complete 3 reps, then repeat on the left side

15. Wall angel exercise

Recommended by Dr. Omel

  • Stand with your back toward a wall, approximately one foot away
  • Lean your body against the wall so that your lower back, middle back and back of your skull are in contact with the wall
  • Place your straightened arms at your side along the wall
    • If this is challenging, start by maintaining this position for 30 to 60 seconds at a time, depending on your tolerance
    • As a progression, you can bend your arms 90 degrees at both your shoulders and elbows
  • While inhaling, slide your bent arms upward along the wall as high as you comfortably can
  • Exhale and let your arms slide back down to starting position
  • Complete 1 to 3 sets

Posture correctors

Posture correctors can help reduce or prevent headaches by aligning your spine and training you to maintain proper posture. The best posture correctors don’t do all the work for you; rather, they help you find good posture and remind you to hold it while sitting, standing and on the go. Ultimately, the goal is to learn good posture to maintain it yourself without needing the corrector. 

Do Posture Correctors Work? Here's What Back Doctors Say

“Posture correctors can assist individuals in improving their body posture. They work by supporting a relatively better body posture by bringing the shoulder blades back and downwards while elevating the chest or upper torso. This position helps to restore a better structural balance between the head, spine and pelvis,” says Dr. Omel. “They can aid in preventing headaches by reducing excess muscular tension associated with forward head carriage and poor body posture.”


It's important to choose a posture corrector you’ll wear. Generally, that means one that’s comfortable, durable and stylish enough to appeal to your fashion sense (some posture correctors can be worn over or under clothes). It’s also a good idea to look for posture correctors recommended by doctors. 

Posture corrector before & after stories and photos

“Posture correctors help to keep the neck and upper back in a neutral position, especially when sitting. When worn consistently and correctly, posture correctors can help to retrain the muscles of the neck and upper back to rest at a neutral position again, which will stop producing the tension causing the headaches,” says Dr. Tanneberg.

Are posture correctors safe? Here's what experts say 

Posture apps

You can install posture apps that help you improve posture in one of four ways: 

  1. Reminders to sit with proper posture throughout the day
  2. Posture exercise and stretch routines
  3. Posture analysis (these apps use your phone’s camera and other sensors to assess your posture)
  4. Slouch detectors (these apps use your webcam to detect and alert you when you slouch)

Discover the best apps for improving your posture


Consistent mindfulness to hold proper posture is important, no matter what other treatments you use to help with your headaches. 

“Consciously correcting poor posture is where I have all of my patients start,” says Dr. Tanneberg. “Set reminders or timers in your phone or just consciously tell yourself to ‘be upright’ throughout the day. Same as any other bad habit, it starts with simple daily changes.”

How to use a posture corrector

Dr. Tanneberg recommends: 

  • Limiting the amount of time you spend seated throughout the day
  • Limiting yourself to only 30 minutes of sitting per “session”
  • Sitting in a comfortable and ergonomic chair
Posture corrector FAQs: Top questions answered

    It’s also a good idea to hold your smartphone up rather than looking down at it to avoid headaches caused by forward head posture and tech neck. If you find yourself tilting your head forward at work, determine whether you’re straining to read your computer screen, as vision issues can lead to postural problems that cause headaches. 

    5 types of posture problems & how to fix your posture

    A person sitting with proper posture in an ergonomic chair. Perhaps with a timer?

    Doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists

    Doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists can help eliminate headaches caused by poor posture. Often, these disciplines complement one another as part of a holistic treatment and headache prevention plan. 

    Remember that headaches have many causes, some serious, so it’s important to seek medical advice if you cannot resolve them on your own. 

    “Someone should seek out the services of a healthcare professional as soon as they notice unremitting muscular tension and reduction of active ranges of motion throughout the middle back, neck and base of the skull,” says Dr. Omel. 

    If poor posture is the reason for your headaches, you can reduce, eliminate and prevent them with a treatment plan that includes postural exercises, posture correctors, mindfulness and physical therapy.

    Looking for a lightweight, comfortable, stylish posture corrector that works? Try BackEmbrace!


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