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Massage Therapy to Relieve Headache Pain

by Athletico9 Comments

I recently returned back to work after maternity leave. At the end of my second day back, I was sitting at my desk, and I started getting a headache. I would probably classify it as a tension headache, but regardless of what you call it–it hurt. I instantly started to massage my neck to try to relax the muscles and give myself some relief. The first thing I thought was that I was lucky I knew what was causing the pain and how to give myself relief. At that point I thought, “This should be your next blog post! So many people suffer from headaches and don’t know what to do about it.”

Massage Therapy to Help Headache PainDid you know that an estimated 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches? Chronic headaches are one of the most common complaints made to healthcare practitioners every year. These headache sufferers are looking for some answers and treatment. Headaches are most often treated with over-the-counter or prescription medications. These treatments are highly effective, but can be a temporary solution for a chronic problem. Massage therapy has shown to be effective in treating migraine and tension headaches.

Tension Headaches: These types of headaches can be caused by muscle spasms, trigger points, TMJ dysfunction, neck alignment, stress, hormonal/chemical changes, dehydration, and stress/anxiety. Tension headaches can show up as a tightness or constricting feeling in the head, as pain in the head or referred pain in the neck, shoulders, and arms, as muscle spasms/pain, as pain in the jaw, or as pain around the temple and behind the eyes. Tension headaches usually do not come with other sensitivities, such as sensitivity to light and sound or nausea.

Migraines:These types of headaches are still somewhat mysterious. They are believed to be caused by neck alignment, chemical/hormonal changes, neurological problems, vascular problems, environmental irritants, food sensitivities, and/or blood sugar regulation. Migraines can be very severe and can last up to several days. These headaches do usually come with some sensitivities, such as sensitivity to light, sound, and nausea/vomiting.

Both tension headaches and migraines have been effectively treated by massage therapy. Not only can massage help relieve headache pain, but it can also help to prevent headaches from occurring. Massage is helpful for many reasons:

  • Massage promotes circulation: Massage can increase blood flow in areas that might be ischemic (lacking blood flow) and therefore help relieve pain.
  • Massage decreases pain from Trigger Points: Trigger Points are areas of hyper-irritable tissue that are very tender and also can refer pain to other areas of the body. Trigger Point Therapy or Neuromuscular Therapy (NMT) can help decrease the pain and referrals into the neck and head.
  • Massage relieves muscle spasms/tension: Massage can help loosen chronically tight muscles and taught bands of tissue. This helps with muscle balance and neck alignment. Also, loosening the muscles that attach to the base of the skull (sub-occipitals) can relieve the tension headaches that travel up the back of the head and into the eye and the ‘vice-like’ constricting headaches so many people suffer from.
  • Massage helps regulate certain hormones: Massage therapy has shown to decrease levels of the stress hormone Cortisol. Massage therapy also increases endorphins and stimulates the Para-Sympathetic Nervous system, therefore promoting relaxation. Because of this hormone effect, massage therapy can improve the quality of your sleep. It is a happy little cycle: decrease stress = better sleep = fewer headaches = decrease stress =……and so on and so forth.
  • Migraines: The research is unclear exactly why massage therapy helps those who suffer migraine headaches. However, in multiple studies, massage therapy was shown to decrease the frequency and the duration of migraines.

One of the most exciting things about this research is that there is finally a non-pharmocological treatment for headaches. Massage therapy can be a treatment that is safe and effective–not just a cover up. However, I must say that there are MANY potential causes of headaches, and some are a lot more serious than others. If you do suffer from chronic headaches, you want to check with your doctor first to make sure you do not need additional treatment. Once you get the okay from your doctor, provide as much information about your headaches as you can to your massage therapist, and he or she can help develop a protocol that is right for you.

If you’re interested in learning more about massage therapy, request an appointment at an Athletico near you.

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The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

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  1. Diane Swan

    After suffering from migraines for 45 years I am coming to the massage table a little late…but oh so effective treatment!!! Finally, someone is not giving me another medication to take for my headaches but giving me such relief and painless days …more then 2 in a row!! I wholeheartedly agree massage therapy works for me!!!

  2. Nancy Kusner

    Great information Candace – perfect timing I’m now rubbing my neck too – rather than reaching for the tylenol! Thanks.

  3. Candice Reimholz

    @Nancy- Thanks for the comment; glad I could help. You’ll have to come see me in Grayslake one of these days.
    @Diane- Better late than never! I’m so glad that Massage Therapy has helped give you relief.

  4. Sarah

    Nice article – thank you. Just a couple of questions:
    1) Does the research indicate that regular, preventative massage is the way to go (say, monthly?) or should you just run to your local massage therapist when you feel a headache starting?
    2) Are there particular types of massage recommended for migraines or is any massage effective because it increases circulation? For example, I’ve heard craniosacral massage mentioned once or twice in this context.

  5. Candice Reimholz

    Thanks Steven. I have not heard of any clinical trials that use Massage Therapy as a treatment for migraines. Most of the trials are for a particular medication. However, I believe they are beginning to do more research on migraine ‘prevention’ as opposed to ‘treatment’ and hopefully this will include massage therapy.

  6. ken

    Yes, great relief for general stress also.

    In terms of diagnosis: Basically, we need to do some thinking as to what we were doing prior to the migraine. What kind activity were we involved with, what were we eating, when did it start. Are there any commonalities at all, and what are they? I mean that’s what I think what do you think?

  7. Candice Reimholz

    Ken- You bring up a great point. We really should be paying attention to possible triggers to these migraines. Some people will even keep a daily log of what activities they are performing, what they ate that day, and a pain scale or description of headache. This is the best way to notice any trends and a great thing to bring with you to the doctor’s office. Thanks!

  8. Crystal

    Is there a specific type of massage therapy that significantly helps reduce amount of migranes or relieve pain? For example like deep tissue massage or reflexology or any others?

  9. Candice Reimholz

    @Crystal- I find that different people respond to different types of massage. Some people might see some relief with trigger point therapy, others do well with deep tissue, etc. I think the most important thing is working with a massage therapist that is specifiically trying to treat the headaches. For example, if I am seeing a migraine sufferer, I would much rather see them for short focused sessions more often. Not necessarily full body massages spaced a month apart. Please let me know if you have any other questions. Thanks!

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