Massage Therapy for Headaches

Almost everyone has suffered the pain of a headache. Headaches can last for a few hours up to several days, and sometimes involve symptoms such as sensitivity to light and nausea. They can seriously impact daily life when they occur frequently or for an extended period of time. Massage is one natural alternative to allopathic medicine that can help relieve headaches while avoiding the side effects that often accompany prescription and over-the-counter headache medications.

Massage Therapy Can Relieve Headaches

Since many tension headaches and migraine headaches are accompanied by neck pain, headache sufferers find that manual therapies such as massage offer relief from headache pain and related symptoms. Because massage therapy relaxes tense muscles, relieves muscle spasms, improves blood flow and aids relaxation, it can be helpful for relieving the pain of both tension and vascular headaches.

Types of Headaches: Muscle Tension and Vascular Headaches

The most common types of headaches are muscle tension and vascular headaches. Muscle tension headaches produce dull, constant pain on both sides of the head and may also involve an aching neck or sensitive scalp. They generally start slowly and can last from hours to days.

Muscle tension headaches are sometimes called muscle contraction headaches because it is the tightening of the muscles of the head, face and neck that causes the pain. This is why tension headache sufferers often describe their pain as a “vice-like grip” at their temples or as tightening bands around the forehead or along the base of the skull.

Vascular headaches are the ones many people describe as “pounding” or “throbbing.” They occur when the blood vessels that supply the brain and the muscles in the head swell and constrict. Vascular headache pain intensifies with physical activity and typically lasts from 4 to 72 hours. It may be associated with other symptoms such as vision problems, extreme sensitivity to light, and nausea. Migraines, cluster headaches and headaches that result from high blood pressure are all examples of vascular headaches.

How Does Massage Therapy Relieve Headaches?

Massage therapy helps to relieve both types of headaches by easing muscle tension, relieving muscle spasms, releasing shortened muscles and relaxing tension held in the muscles of the head, shoulders, and neck. When muscle tension eases, there is less pressure on the nerves and blood vessels that supply them. Oxygen-rich blood circulation improves, which also relieves pain. Massage therapy not only helps the muscles of the body to relax but also effectively reduces the anxiety and mental stress that can cause or exacerbate headaches. Regular, ongoing massage therapy can also help to prevent headaches by helping to reduce overall stress and the muscle tension that can trigger headache pain and by helping to maintain emotional balance.

What Is Massage Therapy?

Massage therapy is a form of bodywork. It is “touch,” or manual, therapy in which various parts of the body are rubbed, pressed, kneaded, stroked and tapped. Massage has a demonstrated ability to help relieve physical and emotional tension and stress and to improve circulation throughout the body.

Different Types of Massage for Different Types of Headaches

Because headaches often result from or involve pain referred from problems associated with the bones and muscles in the neck, shoulder, and back, massage focusing on the cervical spine (the vertebrae in the neck behind the skull) can help to relieve headache pain. Shiatsu massage, a Japanese technique in which pressure is applied with the fingers, thumbs and palm to acupuncture points, also may help to reduce headache pain. Another therapeutic touch technique that seems to help headache sufferers is known as the Trager Approach. It uses massage to stretch muscles and joints and promote relaxation.

Some tension headaches may be relieved by a specific form of massage therapy called trigger point therapy (TrP). Trigger point therapy is the application of pressure to specific points such as along the trapezius muscles (the muscles extending from the base of the skull to mid-back located along the spine) and sternocleidomastoid muscles (muscles on either side of the neck). This pressure interrupts the nerve signals that not only cause the headache pain but also create the trigger point. This therapy aims to relieve pain and to re-educate the muscles so they assume healthy positions and postures that do not generate pain.

What Causes Headaches?

In general, it is difficult to pinpoint the precise cause of an infrequently occurring muscle tension or vascular headache, but sometimes the anatomy of the headache—how it starts, where the pain is felt, and how long it lasts—provides valuable clues about its source.

It was once believed that there were only two simple origins of headaches. Vascular headaches, such as migraines, occurred when blood vessels that supplied the brain and muscles of the head and neck dilated or were constricted. Tension headaches were thought to result from the tensing and contracting of muscles of the head, face, and neck in response to physical stress, such as injury or emotional distress.

Today, it is understood that there are complex chemical changes in the brain associated with headache pain. Tension headaches are associated with neurochemicals in the brain —varying levels of serotonin, endorphins and other chemicals that serve as neurotransmitters (substances that nerves use to send messages to one another) helping nerves to communicate.

These chemical changes observed in headache sufferers may cause, or be caused by, muscle tension. It is possible that tensed muscles in the neck and scalp may trigger a headache in someone with altered neurochemical levels or, on the other hand, the neck and scalp muscles may be tensing in response to these neurochemical changes. The rise and fall of these chemicals are thought to not only activate pain pathways to the brain but also interfere with the brain's own capacity to suppress the pain. Massage therapy can effectively ease the muscle tension that causes headaches.

Additional Resources

American Headache Society Committee for Education (ACHE) is an educational resource for physicians, health care providers and patients who seek resources and educational information on headache and face pain.

9000 SW 87 CT, Suite 214
Miami, FL 33176
Shin Wellness
4500 Biscayne Blvd
Miami, FL 33137
June Gentle D.C.
11400 N. Kendall Dr
Miami, FL 33176
Related Articles
Related Videos

© 2014 altMD, LLC. All rights reserved. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of altMD's terms of service and privacy policy and Health Disclaimer. The material on this site is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment provided by a qualified health care provider.