How to Ease Headaches with Physiotherapy

Headaches are one of the most common health complaints. Despite this, they are usually not serious and can often be resolved with some simple self care techniques.

Physiotherapy is very effective for treating migraine and tension-type headaches (which can feel like a tight band around your forehead). It is also very effective for cervicogenic headaches that originate from structures in the neck.

1. Massage

Massage is not only a great way to relieve a headache once it hits, but also has a preventative effect. It stimulates the nerve receptors that activate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” system. This slows down heart rate, relaxes the muscles and brings a general sense of well-being. In one study, the number of headaches experienced per week by participants dropped significantly during a 4-week massage treatment period when compared to a baseline period. The duration of each headache was also significantly reduced.

For those who don’t have a therapist nearby, self-massage can help to ease tension headaches by releasing the tight muscles. Some easy-to-perform techniques can be done at home or in the office to target areas such as your temples, forehead, neck and shoulders and even specific pressure points.

Take a look at our previous blog post on self-massage techniques to learn more, but be careful and stop if you feel pain beyond normal tension release. If you have a chronic headache or migraine, consult with physio Balwyn North to create a treatment plan that can include regular massage therapy and other proactive steps such as posture advice, yoga, supplements and decreased screen time to reduce stress levels.

2. Heat

Whether it’s a tension, muscle contraction, or migraine headache, the pain can range from mildly uncomfortable to debilitating. Many times, headaches come with other symptoms such as light sensitivity, nausea, and/or blurry vision. Some can last for days and require medical attention.

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Luckily, there are some easy ways to ease headaches without reaching for the pill bottle or other invasive methods. Practicing healthy lifestyle habits like getting regular massages, drinking plenty of water, exercising, and eating well can help prevent headaches from occurring in the first place or reduce their intensity and frequency.

A heating pad placed on the neck and shoulders can relax muscles, relieve stress, and alleviate headaches by increasing blood flow, soothing stiff neck muscles, and numbing pain. Alternatively, a warm bath or shower can also be very beneficial to alleviate headaches. Taking a hot bath or shower with a few drops of eucalyptus oil can be particularly helpful to treat a tension headache.

It is important to drink enough water, especially in the hours leading up to sleep, as headaches are frequently caused by dehydration. Also, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, sugar and nicotine in the hours before sleep can help prevent headaches. It’s also a good idea to keep a food and headache diary, which can help identify what triggers your headaches. This way, you can gradually eliminate foods that might be causing them and find new ones that may provide relief.

3. Exercise

If you suffer from a dull, shooting or throbbing pain in your head – and are fed up of taking pills to relieve it – physiotherapy can help. The treatment involves manual therapy, which targets the neck muscles, to reduce tension and improve strength and posture. It can also involve a range of lifestyle changes to help you manage your headaches, such as avoiding trigger foods, hormonal fluctuations or poor sleeping habits.

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Initially, your physiotherapist will work with you to rule out more serious headache causes such as a stroke or tumour. A detailed manual assessment of the joint stiffness and muscle balance in your upper cervical joints, and a neck movement/function and muscle strength/endurance assessment may be required to identify a possible cause.

A common type of headache is known as a primary exercise-related headache (previously called an exertion headache) which occurs only during and after strenuous exercise and lasts from five minutes to 48 hours. These typically have a throbbing sensation and are felt on both sides of the head, but they can be brought on by other factors, including dehydration, food intolerance, hormone changes or a blow to the head.

Another type of headache is a cervicogenic headache, which is caused by neck muscles tightening or loading the structures of the upper cervical spine. Your physiotherapist will use manual techniques and gentle soft tissue massage to release the tension in these muscles, which can be triggered by poor neck/head posture, repetitive motions or sleep habits. They will then guide you through rehabilitation exercises, clinical pilates and a range of other lifestyle changes to help minimise the load on these structures.

4. Sleep

For many headache sufferers, getting enough sleep can make a huge difference to their symptoms. Studies have shown that sleep disturbance is linked to increased risk of a migraine and can also increase the frequency of headaches triggered by certain lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and stress.

Sleep is key for the development of the brain chemical serotonin, which is involved in several functions of the body including mood and pain control. Research has also indicated that a lack of REM sleep can be a trigger for both migraines and tension type headaches, while avoiding exposure to migraine triggers seems to help reduce sensitivity to those triggers (Martin, Citation 2007).

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Headaches are the result of pain messages being sent from structures in the neck, such as ligaments, muscles and joints. These structures can become stressed over time from poor neck/head posture and movement, repetitive motions that cause strain on the muscles or from a traumatic injury. These headaches are known as primary headaches and include migraines, cluster headaches and tension type headaches.

To determine the cause of your headaches, a thorough clinical assessment is required to ensure accurate diagnosis. This can be done through a detailed manual examination of the cervical joints and muscles in combination with a postural/movement and stress assessment. A specialised neck physiotherapy treatment is then provided to ease the symptoms and to address the root cause of the pain. This is especially effective for cervicogenic headaches, which are due to a painful structure in the neck.