Headaches & Migraines
If you suffer from headaches or migraines then you’ll be pleased to know that I offer a highly effective approach to resolving them. Treatment for headaches and migraines is one of my main interests snd specialties!
Headaches and migraines are extremely common. The World Health Organisation estimates that 50% of people worldwide suffer from headaches. Furthermore, 10-15% of those suffer from migraines. Nearly all migraine sufferers, and around 60% of headache sufferers, experience disruption in social activities, and a reduced work capacity.
I encourage you to make an appointment if you experience any of the following
- migraine or migraine symptoms
- tension headaches
- severe headaches
- stress headaches
There are over 300 causes of headaches & migraines, and most of them fall into the following three categories:
- Tension headaches
- Neck Headaches
Tension headaches occur due to tension building up in the neck and shoulders. The symptoms are usually bilateral (both sides), and produce a pressing or tightening type sensation. Office workers and those who drive for long periods of time are most at risk of developing a tension headache.
Further to the above risk factors, issues with posture can also cause tension headaches. Poor posture can create stress and tension in the neck and shoulders, which eventually leads to tension headaches. For an in depth explanation of the effects of poor posture, read my article NECK PAIN: The Ultimate Guide to Why, What, and How to Get Relief.
For a brief understanding of how posture can greatly impact headaches, let’s have a look at Michael, our token office worker!
If this looks like you, then I may have a solution… In the above photo you can clearly see that Michael’s head is sitting forward. This creates a strong pull through the neck, which acts to dramatically increase tension there. If I was treating Michael for headaches, this is the first thing I would address.
Neck headaches (or ‘cervicogenic headaches’) are most commonly caused by a problem in the first three vertebrae of the neck. Problems with the vertebrae in this area triggers pain signals to the brain. Further complications of muscular imbalance in the neck and shoulders can also cause a neck headache. Also, irritation of the nerves in the neck and base of the skull can be another cause of your pain.
Neck headaches usually present unilaterally (on one side). They radiate from the back to the front of the head, and they temporarily ease when you apply pressure to the base of your skull on the suboccipital attachments.
The cause of migraines is often a chronic neurological disorder, however migraine symptoms can simply be caused by an issue in the neck. The characteristics of migraines is episodic attacks of throbbing head pain. A typical migraine can last anywhere between 4 and 72 hours. Women are the primary sufferers of migraines, however the frequency of migraine attacks often decreases after menopause. Symptoms may include:
- head pain
- nausea – feeling like you need to vomit
- photophobia – sensitivity to light
- phonophobia – sensitivity to sounds
- aura symptoms – seeing flashes or flickering light
Pain is often felt unilaterally, which means on one side of the head. However, it is also common to experience bilateral (on both sides) head pain.
If you suffer from headaches or migraines, it is possible that you are suffering from one, two or all of the above categories simultaneously. Multisource headaches can feed into each other in that a migraine may cause neck tension, which may over time cause a problem in the neck etc.
Stress can lead to a chronic build up of tension around the neck and shoulder area, which in turn can lead to issues that cause headaches and migraines. It is important to not underestimate the affects of stress on the body. Stress effects the nervous system, and the entire body is controlled via the nervous system. The medical industry clearly recognises stress as impacting many aspects of health. If I had limited tools at my disposal to treat headaches, advice on stress reduction would be high on my priority list.
Headaches can also be caused by other factors such as eye strain, hormones and allergies. If this is you, then seeing a properly trained practitioner will no doubt uncover these factors.
In the below video I discuss the common causes of headaches, and give some advice on how to relieve them yourself.
Headache & Migraine Treatment
In most cases, soft tissue treatment to the neck and shoulders provides an initial relief from headaches. However, before any treatment takes place, it is important to assess the underlying causes of your headaches. This allows the therapist to rule out certain factors that may be causing the headaches, and thus tailor the treatment to you.
In the case of migraines, treatment varies depending on whether or not there is hormonal and/or other underlying causes. This will become evident throughout the initial assessment.
Your therapist can use a variety of techniques to treat headaches and migraines. I will detail these under the below headings.
Your therapist may use massage techniques to target the muscles around the neck, shoulders and base of the skull. This is a highly effective way of relieving tension, and desensitising sore areas. Massage also relieves stress which will help considerably with your headaches.
The following types of massage are effective in headache treatment:
- remedial massage
- deep tissue masage
- myofascial release
- trigger point release
Dry needling, otherwise known as myofascial dry needling, is highly effective in the treatment of headaches. When receiving dry needling for headaches it is important that your therapist target the right areas. These are generally the muscles around the upper back, neck, shoulders and base of the skull.
Dry needling benefits include:
- pain relief
- relaxation of tight muscles
- stress relief by activating a ‘rest and relax’ response from the nervous system
In the below video I demonstrate a basic dry needling approach to treating neck pain, which is also applicable to the treatment of headaches.
Muscle Energy Eechnique (MET)
MET is a technique that involves the patient doing gentle isometric muscle contractions. The therapist applies a small amount of resistance to these contractions. The effect is that the muscles relax more deeply each time the therapist applies the technique. For treatment of headaches, your therapist may use MET to release tension in the muscles of the neck and shoulders. MET is also an effective technique to improve posture by releasing tension in the muscles responsible for poor posture, such as the pectorals and latissimus dorsi.
Mobilisation works by manually introducing movement to stiff joints. As stiffness in the vertebrae of the neck causes some headaches, mobilisation can be a highly effective way of making immediate and lasting change.
‘Manipulation’ is also known as ‘adjustment‘, and is strong form of mobilisation for increasing the mobility of joints. For this technique, the therapist applies a sudden movement to a joint, which produces an audible ‘popping’ sound. Due to certain risks involved with manipulation to the neck, many practitioners avoid manipulation in that area. In most cases, more gentle mobilisations to the neck are just as effective. In fact, here are studies to show that the effects of gentler mobilisation are longer lasting.
Stretching to the neck and shoulder area can be very effective in reducing the symptoms of your headache. Your therapist can apply stretches as part of treatment, or you can simply do them at home by yourself as a maintenance measure. If you don’t get relief from stretching, I would advise against it until you have been properly assessed by a qualified practitioner. This is because in cases of neck headaches, it is important to be specific about exactly what needs stretching, and what needs strengthening in order to resolve the underlying issues. In the below video I demonstrate the four best stretches to relieve neck pain, which should help reduce headache symptoms as well.
Exercises are another way to relieve your headaches and reduce their frequency. Your therapist can give you exercises to improve posture, or simply to relieve symptoms. I go into some details about this in the headache video posted above.
The effects of deep breathing can be very beneficial if you’re suffering from a sore neck and shoulders. This is because by redirecting your breath to the abdomen, you do a number of positive things. This type of breathing is called ‘abdominal breathing’.
When you employ abdominal breathing, you:
- correct faulty breathing patterns that overuse the muscles in your neck
- take your mind off your stress
- calm your nervous system down
You don’t believe me? Try doing ten deep breaths now and see how you feel!
In the below video I talk more about breathing, and also instruct you in some breathing exercises to relieve tension.
Stress reduction involves identifying ways to reduce the effects of your specific stressors. These stressors must first be identified, thus a good therapist will listen tentatively to you about all aspects of your life. Your therapist should address your pain in a comprehensive way, and this includes understanding stress and it’s impact on you specifically. Once you and your therapist have identified what makes your feel stressed, they should be able to give you methods to help reduce the effects of these, and thus reduce your pain. As each individual is so different, there’s no such thing as ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to treatment for headaches.
Perhaps surprisingly, stress reduction does not necessarily mean changing your work or home life. In most cases simply developing awareness around your stress, and then finding coping mechanisms is enough.
Headaches and migraines have many variable causes and solutions. Your number one call to action if you’re suffering should be to seek a therapist that can correctly diagnose the cause of your pain. Once there is clarity around the cause of your pain, your therapist can apply a variety of techniques to help you find relief.
To begin with, a thorough assessment that seeks to uncover exactly why you’re suffering is paramount. From here, a combination of techniques and self help methods can help you to gain control over your pain.
In my own practice, I use a combination of techniques to relax the body and relieve symptoms. I start off deeply treating the muscles and fascia around the neck and shoulders with a tailored approach for each patient. I also look at the big picture of posture, muscular imbalance, movement, lifestyle and stress, and help you find ways to alter these wherever needed.
Where applicable, I prescribe various rehabilitation exercises to mobilise and stabilise your neck and shoulders. Usually the treatment for resolving headaches doesn’t need to be complicated, it just needs to be thorough.