Headaches from Singing: 6 Common Causes & What to Do

Headaches from Singing: 6 Common Causes & What to Do
Photo by Ivan Aleksic / Unsplash

If you have noticed a pattern of headaches after you sing, you're not alone. Many people suffer from 'singing headaches', but are unsure exactly what is causing the pain and what they can do to prevent them. In this article, I will explore the most common causes so you don't have to suffer anymore.

Singing headaches can be caused by body tension, being in a bright and loud environment, breathing ineffectively, exercise from jumping or dancing, nervousness or dehydration. Staying relaxed and employing good singing practices can avoid this, but massage and rest can help when required.

You can read about each of these reasons behind singing headaches in more detail below to gain a better understanding of how you can prevent them. I have also included a few ways to dissipate these headaches while you work on stopping them from happening in the first place.

The Common Causes of a Singing Headache

1. Tension

There are many ways of building up tension in your body when you sing. This is why it is important to stay relaxed and maintain correct singing posture. Have a look at the list below and work out whether one of these might be your issue when you sing.

  • Using tight facial expressions (expression is good, but it shouldn't feel tight).
  • Tensing your neck or shoulders
  • Squinting
  • Pushing your voice too loud or too high

All of these things listed will cause tension in your body, leading to a tension-headache. In particular, pushing your voice too far will lead to the tension in the other areas listed.

2. Bright Lights and Loud Noise

Most performances involve some form of loud noise or bright stage lights. In some cases, the music may be a thumping beat and the lights may be flashing. I've been in situations where smoke machines have been a bit over-used as well.

Any one of these can give you a headache when you sing. However, it may be hard to remove yourself from this environment (unless you have some say over the stage production). Below is a few ways you can counteract these things.

  • Use noise-cancelling in-ears (ear-buds that still allow you to hear yourself)
  • Close your eyes while you sing (when appropriate - not the whole time)
  • Stand further away from smoke machines if possible or ask for less smoke

3. Poor Breathing Technique

Breathing inefficiently can lead to tension in your body (particularly your neck and shoulders), but also build pressure in your head. Proper breathing technique involves taking deep breaths and releasing them slowly as you sing.

You can find a few breathing exercises in this article. Practicing this breathing in your normal singing exercises will help this become second-nature.

Poor breathing can also lead to light-headedness because you are not getting enough oxygen to your brain. This is most common when you sing higher because high notes require more breath and control.

4. Physical Exertion

Some people experience headaches after exercise. If this sounds like you, it may be the physical exertion of your performance that is causing the headaches. Jumping or dancing while you sing can leave you physically exhausted and bring on a headache (mostly due to lack of oxygen to the brain).

If you actually study famous singers on stage, you may notice that many of them simplify their dance moves and general movement when singing due to the difficulty and strain it puts on your body. If they can simplify their performance, so can you.

5. Nerves

Almost every singer has had the experience of being nervous before a performance. It's natural when you're not used to being in the spotlight and don't know how people will react to your voice.

Being nervous initiates the fight-or-flight response in your body, which is a state of stress. This can cause a stress-induced headache. If you notice yourself getting incredibly nervous every time you sing (racing heart, shallow breathing, sweating, etc.), this might be your issue.

You can find a few tips on how to boost your confidence on stage here.

6. Dehydration

Dehydration is a major cause of headaches, whether you are singing or not. The problem with singers is that they often do not drink enough water throughout the day. They then choose not to before a performance to avoid stomach aches, muscle stitches or needing to go to the bathroom.

Some singers even opt to use a vocal steamer instead of keeping themselves hydrated. Vocal steamers aren't bad, but they should never replace keeping your body hydrated.

Make sure you are drinking regularly throughout the day to stay hydrated and simply schedule a bathroom break before your performance if you need to.

How to Prevent Singing Headaches

I have mentioned a number of ways to prevent headaches caused by each of these issues above. However, for your reference, here is a convenient list of all of them.

  • Keep your body relaxed (particularly your head, neck and shoulders)
  • Maintain correct singing posture
  • Avoid using tight facial expressions (be mindful of how tight you eyebrows, cheeks, jaw and eyes are)
  • Do not push your voice too loud or too high
  • Close your eyes at regular intervals (when appropriate) to avoid glare from the lights
  • Use noise-cancelling in-ears
  • Stand away from smoke machines
  • Use proper breathing technique (deep controlled breaths)
  • Simplify your physical performance (reduce jumping and dancing)
  • Try to boost your confidence and remain calm
  • Stay hydrated

This may seem a lot, but if you work hard to identify your main issue, you can start from there. Practicing these habits regularly when singing will make them come more naturally when you perform and help avoid headaches.

In fact, when done right, singing actually has many benefits. One of these benefits is making you feel relaxed, which will also help counter the headaches.

How to Relieve a Singing Headache

If you haven't yet mastered the art of preventing a singing headache, there are ways you can find relief after your performance or singing practice. These are general ways you can dissipate a headache.

  • Massage of the head and neck
  • Rest
  • Find somewhere quiet
  • Listen to soft relaxing music
  • Use oils, such as lavender or peppermint (unless the smell brings on another headache!)

Pain relief is a common form of relief for headaches, but just be careful as a singer. Some medications, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, can actually dry out your vocal cords. This can lead to a sore throat after singing.

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