An estimated 45 million Americans complain of headaches annually, which makes it the most common complaint or symptom in medicine today. The pain can range from mild annoyance to a debilitating migraine that feels like someone stuck an ice pick through your brain. Additionally, headaches can interfere with productivity, concentration, and overall quality of life.
When you have a headache, it can be hard to function normally until you find relief. But treatments vary from myths and anecdotes to medical facts, and it's difficult to know which techniques are actually helpful. Not every remedy works on every type of headache. Let's look at the different types of headaches and treatments available, including massage. Before we take a look at the most common types of headaches including tension, sinus, migraine, dehydration, cluster, injury and medication-induced headaches, I want to highlight the fact that is some cases headaches can be the result of a more serious issue (such as an aneurysm, stroke or high, uncontrolled blood pressure).
Tension Headaches - As the name suggests, tension headaches are the result of holding tension in your body. Holding stress in your shoulders, clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth, and spending too much time staring at a computer screen or a smart phone can all lead to tension headaches. Tension headaches mainly occur in the temples or the forehead and often feel like a vice grip around your head. They range from mild to severe and are most commonly treated with over-the-counter medication, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
Sinus Headaches - Nasal congestion and inflammation from allergies or sinusitis can cause your nasal passages to swell. This blocks the nasal cavity and prevents mucus from being able to drain. Sinus headaches are generally located in the front of the face, between your eyes and/or cheekbones. Taking an antihistamine or other allergy medication for allergy induced sinus headaches can help prevent them from occurring. Mild sinus headaches that result from a sinus infection can sometimes be cleared up by rinsing your nasal passage using a neti-pot or saline rinse. More severe sinus infections will require antibiotics and possibly OTC pain medication.
Migraines - Typically occurring on one side of the head, migraines affect approximately 35 million people in the US. Symptoms include pulsing, and can be accompanied by nausea, dizziness, sensitivity to light and/or sound, and hallucinations (like auras or halos). Some people experience migraines only rarely, while other people experience them on an near daily basis. These types of headaches can be debilitating and most likely to interfere with quality of life. Mild migraine headaches can sometimes be managed with NSAIDS (Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs) while more moderate and severe migraines might require prescription medication. Botox is another treatment option that has been proven effective in clinical trials. However, it is best to consult your doctor before deciding if this is the best treatment option for you.
Cluster - As the name suggests, these headaches usually happen in clusters or cyclical periods ranging from weeks to months, followed by long periods of remission. Cluster headaches usually present as pain around or behind the eye that can often wake you up in the middle of the night. During an episode, cluster headaches will occur daily or sometimes multiple times a day and can last from 15 minutes to 3 hours. Due to the rapid and intense onset of this type of headache, you may feel exhausted once the headache has disappeared. Treatment options for cluster headaches include prescription medication, injectables such as Botox and oxygen therapy.
Secondary Headaches - These are not conditions themselves, but symptoms of other conditions. Secondary headaches can be the result of dehydration, medication or caffeine misuse/overuse, head injury, or illness such as pink-eye (conjunctivitis) and meningitis. Pain from secondary headaches can successfully be managed with NSAIDs. However it's important to focus on getting the appropriate medical treatment for any underlying condition.
Can Massage Help?
Tension headaches, the type of headaches people are most likely to experience, seem to respond well to massage therapy. Not only does massage often seem to reduce pain in the moment, but consistent massage therapy also appears to increase the amount of time between headaches for those who experience them on a chronic basis. This may be a result of helping to manage stress. Or it may be that it helps resolve the underlying mechanical issues resulting in headaches. There's no solid science yet on precisely why massage helps; only that it does.
More good news! It probably doesn't surprise anyone that people who experience regular headaches are also more likely to experience high levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. Studies have found that massage can help with these issues, not just for the general population, but also specifically for people who live with chronic headaches.
Some people with secondary headaches can also benefit from massage. Those with fibromyalgia, for example, who often experience headaches as part of their condition, can experience both pain and stress relief with regular massage therapy. While massage during a flare-up of symptoms may need to be modified to be more gentle, some people find that it can provide relief for headaches, as well as for pain throughout the body.
Massage therapy is wonderful and often helpful, but it's not a cure for headaches. While some people just need a bit of rest or a drink of water (dehydration is a surprisingly common cause of headaches), other people continue to experience headaches their whole lives. While people who experience headaches caused by stress or muscular tension can and will absolutely benefit from massage, migraines triggered by things like foods or hormonal changes probably won't notice any effect.
There are some times when getting a massage for headaches is more than just unhelpful, it's actually dangerous. Most often, this will be related to secondary headaches. Fevers, for example, often cause headaches as well as achy joints. While this could lead someone to want to receive massage, it not only risks overly stressing a body that's already fighting off an infection, but it also has the possibility of spreading the illness to the massage therapist and anyone else they come into contact with. Another example, such as headaches resulting from a recent head, neck, or back injury could also be made worse by a well-meaning massage therapist.
When there is the possibility of pain being caused by an illness or injury, it's best to seek out a physician's opinion first. They can provide or recommend appropriate care for the issue causing the headache in the first place, and at that point you can ask them about whether it would be okay to receive a massage. It's always better to be safe than sorry!
While we massage therapists are still exploring the use and efficacy of techniques like trigger point therapy and myofascial work for tension headaches, many people find the results are worth paying a professional. And even if massage does not help your headaches, you might find that the soothing experience of a massage is a nice tradeoff while you seek other headache relief.
If you are ready to schedule a session with me, click here.
Below is a video of me demonstrating a qigong neck stretch that may help with some tension headaches.