Massage Therapy for Headaches
June is Migraine Awareness Month. Fifty million Americans have chronic headaches – the most common pain problem reported to physicians, ranging in severity from annoying to debilitating. Massage therapy can help significantly with the 3 most common types of chronic headaches.
At Pacific Massage Services we assess whether a patient’s headache might indicate a life-threatening condition, such as tumor, meningitis, aneurysm or head trauma. During intake of a headache patient, we ask the following questions:
• Is this the first headache you’ve ever had?
• Is this the worst headache you’ve had?
• Is this one very different from your usual headaches?
• Do you also have other symptoms, ie fever, body pain, earache, dizziness, confusion, stiff neck?
• Have you had a recent head trauma?
A “yes” answer to any of these questions results in an immediate referral to the patient’s physician to rule out a serious problem. Massage is contraindicated for a headache due to infection, recent head trauma or central nervous system injury.
Another important question we ask is: Could you be dehydrated? With insufficient water, the salinity, and thus osmotic pressure, of the cerebrospinal fluid in the cranium rises. This painful head pressure can be relieved by drinking an adequate amount of water.
Once we have established that the headache does not seem to involve another condition, we determine the type of headache to help us select the most effective treatment. There are three main types of chronic headaches:
1. Tension Headache – Characterized by tension and pain in neck, shoulders, head, face, TMJ; feels like a tight cap squeezing the entire head.
2. Vascular Headache – Deep throbbing pain from excessively dilated blood vessels in the meninges, causing migraine and cluster headaches.
3. Inflammatory – Accompanies sinus infection, URI or UR allergy; constant, deep facial pain, often exacerbated by movement.
A structural imbalance is often the root cause of chronic headaches. While massaging tense muscles can bring temporary relief, correcting a structural imbalance can bring long-term relief from chronic headaches. Two factors influence a successful massage treatment:
1. Release of contracted muscles: Skilled massage therapists release the upper thoracic fascia, the contracted musculature of all cervical and upper thoracic muscles, and all skeletal attachments. Muscle tension constricts blood flow to these muscles and to the head. This combination of muscle spasm and inadequate blood supply is the primary cause of pain in tension headaches.
2. Structural Alignment: Back, neck and shoulder tension often creates a structural imbalance, as can treatment to these muscles alone. So we balance upper back work by including lower back massage; and posterior work by also releasing anterior and lateral muscular structures, thus allowing any structural or postural misalignment to rebalance. The correction of postural deviation is often all that is needed to prevent future headaches. For vascular headaches, structural realignment has the additional benefit of improving the flow of cerebrospinal fluid and blood to the head, giving long-lasting benefits for the relief of vascular headaches.
In addition to hands-on treatment, at Pacific Massage Services, we also counsel patients on postural causes of headache, such as long hours of driving, or phone or computer work. We make suggestions for improvement, for example: placing the computer monitor at eye level and use of ergonomic seating. As well, we advise patients on lifestyle changes such as sufficient water intake and possible dietary causes. When appropriate, we recommend stretching, exercise, chiropractic care, physical therapy, nutritional counseling or medical attention.