Myofascial Release for Headaches
At one time or another, everyone experiences the dull constricting pressure and pain of a tension headache. For some people, tension headaches occur almost every day. Although acute headache pain can be treated with herbs or over-the-counter products, myofascial release provides a way to reduce tension that is a root cause of chronic headaches and prevent headaches from reoccurring.
What is Myofascial Release?
The fascia is thin, strong connective tissue that covers muscles and bones and surrounds internal organs such as the heart, lungs, and intestines. Normal, healthy fascia is flexible. It provides a seamless, interconnected web that supports and shapes body structures. When the body becomes injured or inflammation occurs, fascia becomes stiff and range of motion is limited. Myofascial release is a type of bodywork that specifically treats the fascia in the body using sustained dynamic pressure. This pressure helps release the stress in the fascia, restore symmetry in the fascia, and restore balanced muscle tension and body alignment. It increases the elasticity of the fascia so range of motion is improved. Myofascial release is used in the treatment of a range of motion problems and chronic pain.
How Myofascial Release can Help Headaches
When the body experiences physical insults such as sprains, strains, scarring from surgery or injury, inflammation, disease, trauma from falls, repetitive stress, and poor posture, it responds by assuming unnatural positions. This unnatural positioning puts abnormal stress on the various areas of the fascia. The fascia then shortens and loses elasticity. This in turn creates tension in the muscles so that they pull the body out of alignment. Poor posture, a non-ergonomic office environment, stress, and injury to the arm, shoulder, neck, or jaw are common causes of muscle tension that cause headaches. These causes can be modified by myofascial release to relieve headaches.
In order to restore flexibility to the fascia and to release muscle tension, the myofascial release practitioner performs movements that alternately stretch and compress the fascia. The goal of this is to restore the natural alignment of the body. Fascia is connected through the entire body, so myofascial release performed on parts of the fascia will release tension in the entire body. As abnormal stresses on the head and neck disappear, so do the headaches. Although myofascial release therapy works best on tension headaches, it can also help prevent or reduce the frequency of migraine and cluster headaches as well.
Headaches also can have a psychological or emotional component. People who experience emotional trauma may assume protective body positions that strain the muscles of the head, neck, and shoulders. This stress deforms the fascia and can cause tension headaches. Myofascial release is not intended to directly address the emotional causes of headache pain. However, some clients discover that during their myofascial release sessions emotions are liberated in a way that has a positive effect on both physical and emotional healing.
What Happens During a Myofascial Release Session?
Treatment of headaches can take several myofascial release sessions. On the first visit, the practitioner will discuss the nature of the patient’s headaches—what brings them on, how long they last, what activities the patient is engaged in at the onset, what kind of pain is experienced—as well as the patient’s lifestyle, stressors, and the goal of the treatment. The practitioner will explain how a myofascial release treatment plan can achieve the patient’s treatment goals and reduce frequency and severity of headaches.
During this initial visit, the practitioner will also evaluate the patient’s posture and movement to determine whether this could be a cause of tension that leads to headaches. The practitioner will develop a plan of treatment based on the individual patient’s needs, the type of headaches they experience, and the feedback the practitioner gets while working with the patient’s body.
Each myofascial release session generally lasts about an hour. Depending on the plan of treatment and the patient’s goals, sessions can occur from one to three times per week. The patient will wear minimal, non-baggy clothing (like a bathing suit or sports bra and pants) to allow the practitioner access to the body. Unlike in some types of massage, no lubricant is used for myofascial release. The practitioner uses light pressure, compression and traction to stretch the fascia that is tense and rigid. The patient should not feel pain during this therapy; pressure is applied slowly, increasing blood flow to the site of the pressure and allowing the fascia to relax and regain its natural, correct structure.
Many times, only one or two parts of the body are worked in one myofascial release session. Trigger points on the patient’s body will tell the practitioner where work needs to be done. Trigger points are areas on the body where pain or tension resides. The practitioner will use gentle pressure to find these points based on the feedback he or she gets from touch. Even though only one or two areas may be worked, the entire body will benefit because fascia is interconnected like a web.
Temporary soreness might occasionally result after a myofascial release session, but most people do not feel any discomfort after a session. When soreness is felt, it is usually because deeper, more intense pressure was used to unwind very tense fascia. This soreness is normally quite brief.
Relief can be felt after a single myofascial release session, but three or more sessions will yield more lasting relief from headache symptoms. Some insurance companies cover this therapy, especially if myofascial release therapy is prescribed by a physician or performed by a licensed physical or occupational therapist. Depending on the prescription by a doctor, an insurance company may cover a limited number of therapy sessions.
Finding a Myofascial Release Practitioner
In the United States, no national body certifies practitioners of myofascial release. Although some form of myofascial release has been done since the 1940s, John F. Barnes, a physical therapist, popularized the technique in the 1990s. Many people trained in myofascial release are physical or occupational therapists, osteopathic physicians, or chiropractors who have taken special classes, often taught by Barnes, to learn the technique. Other practitioners of myofascial release also have training in bodywork techniques such as Rolfing, Swedish massage, and deep tissue massage.
There are no scientific studies that exactly explain how myofascial release works. Nevertheless, practitioners believe that correcting uneven strain on the fascia releases tension. This increases free movement of the fascia, helps muscles to move more easily, and relieves headaches and other pain throughout the body.
The Academy for the Healing Arts Massage & Bodyworks web site at has an FAQ on myofascial release.
Licensed Physical Therapist John. F. Barnes, one of the leading trainers in the techniques of myofascial release explains the technique and how practitioners are trained on his web site.