Is 'Scalp Tension' A Real Thing? We Investigated

Image by Sergey Filimonov / Stocksy

There I was, during a much-needed trim at a new salon: I lowered my head into the basin, ready for my shampoo and conditioner, and the hairstylist took my head and hair in her hands. I had already been running late to the appointment after a particularly long day at work. To top it off, I was in the midst of moving and had a slew of summer weddings and travel I needed to prepare for. So: Starting off at a higher stress level than normal. And as my eyes closed—you know when you're normally supposed to drift off and relax—all I could think about was the plethora of tasks I needed to get done. I internally scolded myself for even taking this time to get my hair cut.

My hairstylist softly asked me, "So you have a lot going on right now, huh?" I laughed. Maybe I was making some weird face? She continued, "I can feel it in your scalp."

What is "scalp tension"?

Many months later, I sat across from famed Parisian hairstylist and colorist Christophe Robin (his products are some of my all-time favorites) for a work meeting. Without even touching my head, he noted to me that it looked as if I had a "stiff scalp." He instructed me to put my palm on the crown of my head and try to move my the skin around. Did it? he wondered. And honestly, not really.

"We tend to hold a lot of tension across our hairline, behind our ears and in the neck; this is mostly due to stress and partly to posture," Robin told me later. "We accumulate quite a lot of tension in these areas and often disregard them."

Unfortunately there's little research about general tension in this area, and most of it has to do with tension leading to headaches. However, you do have muscles on your scalp that can tense. The largest is the temporalis muscle, which runs from behind your ear, around your head, and to the back. This muscle can become strained in the same way your shoulder or jaw muscles can become so: By holding them tightly during times of stress.

"Many people—myself included—constrict the muscles in the scalp, shoulders, and neck when they get worked up, so you can absolutely develop tension there," says board-certified dermatologist Jeanine Downie. She even notes that some patients request Botox in the scalp to relax the muscle. However, she notes, this is for severe cases where the patient complains of frequent headaches or even migraines.

I thought about my own behavior. What is my first reaction when I feel my anxiety build? I pull up my shoulders, clench my jaw, and the muscles in my scalp start to pull backward. No wonder I'm stiff.

What can you do about it?

Scalp massages, says Robin. "We should be doing this on a regular basis, whether it's in the shower, before going to sleep, or another moment in the day; take 5 minutes and really massage your temples, behind your ears and neck," he says.

If you do a quick Google search about scalp massages, the positive claims range from hair regrowth to reduced dandruff. And, again, there isn't a lot of research to back up these claims, but there was one small study that showed standardized scalp massages in men increased hair growth, likely due to increased circulation. And, also, there is plenty of research about the benefits of massage therapy in general: It's said to decrease cortisol and increase serotonin and dopamine.

And a scalp massage is something you can do by yourself daily, which makes it a low-lift tool for when you start to feel the area tense up.

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How do you give yourself a scalp massage?

According to Robin, you should start by lightly wetting the pads of your fingers with an oil. (He recommends jojoba or sweet almond oil.) He likes it as a pre-shampoo treatment, so you can loosen any product buildup and wash any excess oil out after, but you could really do this any time of day.

First, tip your head forward to get the blood flowing to your scalp. (Or lie on your bed and let your head hang off the side, he told me when we first met.) Then follow Robin's four steps:

  • Starting at the top of your head, use your fingers to comb down, applying pressure so you can feel skin the entire way down. Do this from your forehead to the back
  • Next, place your fingers on each side of your scalp and rub around in circular motions. You can also do these small circular motions around your hairline.
  • Lightly tap—like you're playing the piano—all over your head. Again, don't neglect your hairline.
  • For the final step, take small sections of hair and gently pull outward.

While you are doing this, always avoid using your nails, so you don't end up scratching yourself. Final tip? "Enjoy and be in the moment," he says.

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