Physical Therapy Can Help With Headaches

By Rachel Long, PT, DPT

Headaches are among one of the most common physical complaints and are often frustrating to manage. Pain in any part of the head is classified as a headache and it is important to determine the root cause of the pain.  Most headaches are harmless and can resolve on their own but frequent and intense headaches can interfere with daily functioning and quality of life. Fortunately, physical therapy has been shown to help with headache management to reduce or even eliminate symptoms.

Types of Headaches:

  • Cervicogenic headaches
  • Migraine
  • Tension headache


Causes of Headaches

Cervicogenic headaches originate from problems in your neck (such as dysfunction in vertebral joints, discs, or nerves). This can arise from poor posture, trauma (such as whiplash or a concussion) or arthritis.  Pain is referred from the neck to the top or front of the head or face.  Decreased mobility in the neck can lead to added stress in the surrounding tissues and result in a headache.  Cervicogenic headaches typically start at the base of the skull and radiate up one side.  The pain is often dull and worsens with movement in the head and neck.

Tension headaches can be caused by anxiety, emotional stress, poor posture, and lack of/impaired sleep.  Tension forms in the group of muscles located in the upper part of the shoulders and neck which attach near and around the base of the skull.

There are many factors that may cause migraines, including heredity, changes in serotonin levels in the body (a chemical found in the brain), and hormones.  Migraines may produce light and/or sound sensitivity.  They are often described as intense pounding or throbbing that usually begins in the forehead, side of head or around the eyes.  Nausea and/or vomiting is often experienced.

Physical Therapy Treatment for Headaches

Physical therapists are experts in managing pain from a variety of sources and can help determine the type/root cause of a headache.  A thorough exam that includes a health history with be performed to identify current postural deficits, joint or muscle impairments, and functional mobility in the neck and upper body.  An individualized treatment plan is developed to correct the problems that are contributing to pain.  Treatment may include:

  • Manual therapy (such as stretching, joint mobilization, and massage) can relieve joint and muscle stiffness and increase mobility of the head and neck.
  • Postural, range of motion and joint stability exercises decrease pain, improve muscle endurance, decrease inflammation, and promote overall healing. A home exercise program is prescribed to maintain gains made in therapy.
  • Patient education is an important part in symptom management. Physical therapists can help identify specific headache triggers and offer suggestions to improve posture with sitting, working, and sleeping as well as provide tips and tricks for self-management of muscle tension.

Physical therapists are movement specialists and are experts in managing pain from many different root causes. Physical therapy has been shown to improve function and decrease pain in patients with headaches. If your headache is keeping you from enjoying the things you love, contact us at Lifeline therapy to schedule your appointment today.

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