Can Massage Help Headaches?

An estimated 45 million Americans complain of headaches annually which makes it the most common medical complaint or symptom in medicine today. The pain can range from mild annoyance to a migraine that feels like someone shoved an ice pick through your brain. Additionally, they can interfere with work productivity, concentration, and overall enjoyment of life. 

When you have a headache, it’s hard to function normally until you find relief. But treatments vary from old wives’ tale anecdotes to medical facts, and it’s difficult to know which techniques are actually helpful and which are just myths because 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/grinding your teeth, and too much time staring at a computer screen call all lead to tension headaches. Tension headaches mainly occur in the temples or the forehead and feel like a vice grip around your head. They range from mild to severe and are most commonly treated with OTC medication such as ibuprofen or aceteminephen.  

Sinus Headaches – nasal congestion and inflammation from allergies or sinusitis can cause your nasal passages to swell. This prevents mucus from being able to pass through the nasal cavity and drain. Sinus headaches are located in the front of the face, between your eyes or cheekbones. Taking a daily allergy medication for allergy induced sinus headaches can help prevent them from occuring. Mild sinus headaches that result from a sinus infection can some times be cleared up by using a neti-pot or saline rinse. More severe sinus infections will require antibiotics and possibly OTC pain medicaion. 

Migraines – Typically occuring 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 sound, and hallucinations. Some people experience migraines only rarely, while other people experience them on an almost daily basis. These types of headaches can be debilitating and most likely to interfere with quality of life. Mild migraine headaches can often 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 – Usually happening in cyclical periods or clusters ranging fro weeks to months followed by long periods of remission, cluster headaches usually present as pain around or behind the eye that will often wake you up in the middle of the night. Cluster headaches will occur daily or sometimes multiple times a day during a cluster episode and can last from 15 minutes to 3 hours. Due to the rapid and intense onset of this type of headache, you usually become exhausted once the headache has disappeared. Treatment options for cluster headaches include prescription medication, injectables such as Botox and oxygen therapy. 

Secondary Headaches – While not conditions themselves, but symptoms of other conditions. Secondary headaches can be the result of dehydration, medication or caffine abuse, head injury or illnesses such as pink-eye (conjunctivitis) or meningitis. Pain from secondary headaches can successfully be managed with NSAIDs, it’s important to focus on getting the appropriate medical treatment for any underlying condition.  

Can Massage Help? 

The good:

Tension headaches, the type of headaches people are most likely to experience, seem to respond well to massage therapy. Not only does massage seem to reduce pain in the moment, but regular massage therapy also appears to increase the amount of time between headaches for those who experience them on a chronic basis. This could be a result of helping to manage stress or underlying mechanical issues that can result in headaches, but 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 folks 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 in the general population, but also specifically in people who live with chronic headaches.

Some people with secondary headaches can also benefit from massage. People 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 both for headache as well as for pain throughout the body.

The bad:

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 headache cause), other people continue to experience headaches all their lives. While people who experience headaches caused by stress or muscular tension can absolutely benefit from massage, migraines triggered by things like foods or hormonal changes probably won’t see an impact.

The ugly:

There are some times when getting a massage for headaches isn’t just unhelpful, it’s actually dangerous. Most often, this is related to secondary headaches. Fevers, as an example, often cause headaches as well as achy joints that could lead someone to want to receive massage, but this not only risks overly stressing a body that’s already fighting off an infection, it also has the possibility of spreading the illness to the massage therapist and anyone else they come into contact with. 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 always 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 a good idea to receive a massage. Safe is always better than sorry!

While we massage therapists are still exploring the use and efficacy of techniques like trigger point massage for tension headaches, many people find the results are worth paying a professional. And even if massage does not help your headaches, you may find that the soothing experience of a massage is a nice tradeoff while you seek other headache relief. 

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