Suboccipital Muscle Release | Suboccipital Headache Treatment with NecksLevel

What are the suboccipital muscles?

The suboccipitals are a group of 8 small but important muscles at the top of your neck. These muscles move your head but can also cause headaches & neck pain.

Digital illustration of a human skull and upper neck showing the suboccipital muscles.

Suboccipital muscle pain:

Neck pain or headaches that start at the base of your skull

Pain at the base of the skull is related to tension & tightness in the suboccipital muscle group. These suboccipital headaches often come from neck muscle weakness, stress, & poor posture.

Want to skip to the suboccipital exercises? Click here.

picture of man pointing to suboccipital neck muscles

Suboccipital Muscle Anatomy

The suboccipital muscles help you look up to the sky (extension) and left / right (rotation)

3D illustration of a human skull with neck muscles visible.

Rectus Capitis Posterior Major

Action: Extend (look up)

Rotation (turn left/right)

3D illustration of a human skull with neck muscles visible.

Rectus Capitis Posterior Minor

Action: Extend (look up)


3D illustration of a human skull with neck muscles visible.

Obliquus Capitis Inferior

Action: Rotation (turn left/right)


3D illustration of a human skull with neck muscles visible.

Obliquus Capitis Superior

Action: Extend (look up)


Suboccipital Release Equipment

There are a few ways to release & stretch the suboccipital muscles. The equipment that you have will determine the effectiveness & length of effects. Get whichever equipment fits your needs best. We provide two options here:

Product photography of NecksLevel Glide neck strengthening device

NecksLevel Glide

Pros: Long-term pain relief, more effective, easier to use

Cons: Greater financial investment

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picture of peanut massage ball

Peanut Massage Ball

Pros: Economical, can make at home with tennis balls

Cons: Short-term effects, awkward, less effective

Search "Peanut Massage Ball" or tape 2 tennis balls together

Option #1

Suboccipital Release:

Peanut Massage Ball

picture of peanut massage ball

Using the peanut ball applies direct pressure to the suboccipital region and helps release the suboccipital muscles. There are two specific release techniques that we recommend (see below).

Location for Suboccipital Release:

Place Peanut Massage Ball at base of skull (near your hair line)

Illustration of suboccipital muscles of the upper neck

#1: Chin Tuck

picture of peanut massage ball

Instructions: With peanut applying pressure to the suboccipitals, perform a small chin tuck motion to stretch out the suboccipitals

Perform for 1-2 minutes

#2: Head Turns

picture of peanut massage ball

Instructions: With peanut applying pressure to the suboccipitals, perform a small head turn motion right and left to stretch out the suboccipitals

Perform for 1-2 minutes

Option #2

Suboccipital Release:

NecksLevel Glide

Product photography of NecksLevel Glide neck strengthening device

The NecksLevel relieves suboccipital pain by both stretching & strengthening the muscles in the upper neck. This combination of therapies is needed to address the underlying causes of neck issues and provide long term relief from pain & headaches. The NecksLevel also works on the neck in multiple directions which better targets the 8 different suboccipital muscles.

#1: Chin Tuck

Product photography of NecksLevel Glide neck strengthening device

Instructions: With NecksLevel in line with your spine, tuck the chin & push the glider away to strecth the suboccipitals. Add a resistance band (like Level 1-Yellow seen here) for neck strengthening + stretching.

Perform for 1-2 minutes

#2: Head Turns

Product photography of NecksLevel Glide neck strengthening device

Instructions: With NecksLevel positioned in line with the shoulders, gently turn your head left & right through your full motion. The further you turn, the more stretch you'll feel at the base of your skull.

Perform for 1-2 minutes

#3: Traction

Product photography of NecksLevel Glide neck strengthening device

Instructions: With NecksLevel in line with your spine, preload the glider toward you. Lower your head and release your hand. The glider will then apply traction and stretch your suboccipitals directly.

Perform for 1-2 minutes

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Summary: Suboccipital Release

Suboccipital pain is common and can be relieved with the right exercises

You're not alone in dealing with this suboccipital pain at the base of your skull. This headache-type pain can really impact your quality of life. For relief, begin with the simple exercises we've outlined here. Whether you use a massage ball or a NecksLevel, be consistent with the exercises daily. If after a few weeks you aren't happy with the results, consult a physical therapist or chiropractor.

Long-term suboccipital pain relief is possible

Applying pressure to the suboccipitals, like with a massage ball, is a temporary fix. For lasting results, we need to fix the underlying causes of your suboccipital pain. Most often, you have suboccipital pain because the suboccipitals are overworked while the bigger neck muscles aren't doing their job. Neck strengthening exercises, like those on the NecksLevel, will often address the source of the problem.


Your posture is another factor to consider. Being in a slouched, forward head position causes the suboccipitals to tighten over time. Try staying tall, with a slight chin tuck, to keep the suboccipitals happy and pain-free. Also, check out the tip below!

Bonus Sleep Tip:

Waking up with suboccipital pain?

Tuck your chin & keep your head in line with your shoulders when side sleeping. Sleeping in this position will help prevent night time neck pain by keeping the suboccipitals stretched.

Illustration comparing poor and good posture by aligning a person's neck and back.

FAQs - Suboccipital Neck Pain

Written by:

Professional headshot of Scott Dickenson CEO of NecksLevel

Dr. Scott Dickenson, DPT, ATC

Physical Therapist

Scott is an Orthopedic Physical Therapist specializing in neck pain with nearly a decade of clinical experience. He regularly speaks at national Physical Therapy, Athletic Training, & Chiropractic conferences on neck injuries & rehab in sport.

NecksLevel Glide

"Like having a Physical Therapist in your home"

Professional neck strengthening and stretching in one compact device. Relieve neck pain while reducing neck stiffness & improving your posture.

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Man using neck strengthening device while lying on his back
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