Treating a patient who reports frequent headaches is one of my favorite diagnoses to treat. Why do I love treating headaches so much? I love treating headaches because physical therapy can be so effective in providing the patient with relief quickly, and relief from a headache problem is a big deal for someone who suffers from them.
In 2007, 1.5-7% of visits to a primary care physician in North America were to address headaches (Hasse et al. 2002). At the age of 40, one report noted 70-80% of females and 60% of males report experiencing headaches in the US (Scher et al. 1999), and a lifetime prevalence is noted between 83-93% (Boardman et al. 2003). These reports show that most of us will experience headaches at one point in our lives.
Headaches can be caused by a large variety of conditions including tumors, vascular problems, sinus issues, and more. Some headaches are caused by issues with our muscles and joints. Physical therapy can treat headaches that are caused by musculoskeletal issues including muscle tension and tightness, disc pathology, lack of neck motion, poor posture, and even tightness in the back between the shoulder blades. Many patients who come to therapy with neck symptoms will also report frequent headaches, some unaware that the two may be connected. Some patients come to therapy with headaches only.
When someone comes to the clinic with reports of frequent headaches, an evaluation will be performed to determine where the problem may be and what to do about it. Once determined that the headaches are most likely originating from the neck or surrounding areas, several treatment methods may be used. Treatment may include use of heat or ice, soft tissue mobilization, cervical traction, muscular releases and muscle energy techniques, shoulder blade, mid back, rib, and neck mobilizations, neck stretches, neck and mid back strengthening, pec stretches, McKenzie based diagnosis and therapy of the spine, and posture education. Each patient is treated differently, as each headache may be caused by something unique to each individual.
Physical therapy treatment for headaches can be extremely effective and work pretty quickly. Some patients may come into the clinic with a headache in their first visit and leave without one. Some patients may require a few weeks of therapy to address more severe motion and strength issues.
Persistent headaches that are musculoskeletal in nature and have been occurring for a long time may not go away completely until they are addressed with therapy. Physical therapy is definitely worth trying when headaches are too often a part of your everyday life!
Contact your physician or physical therapist to see if physical therapy may be a great treatment option for your headaches. As always, any Athletico facility is happy to see you for a complimentary screening to discuss if your headaches may respond well to therapy.
For further reading on physical therapy for headaches, check out this link to Move Forward.
Hasse LA, Ritchey N, Smith R (2002). Predicting the number of headache visits by type of patient seen in family practice. Headache 42. 738-246.
Scher AI, Stewart WF, Lipton RB (1999). Migraine and headache: a meta-analytic approach. In: Eds Crombit IK, Croft PR, Linton SJ, LeResche L, vonKorff M. Epidemiology of Pain. IASP Press, Seattle.
Boardman HF, Thomas E, Croft PR, Millson DS (2003). Epidemiology of headach in an English district. Cephalalagia 23. 129-137.
McKenzie, R, May, S. (2006). The Cervical and Thoracic Spine Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy. (2) 40401-406.