Want to earn continuing education credit for this article? Learn more.
Some people rarely, if ever, get headaches. Some get them every few weeks or months. Others experience them frequently, several times a week or even every day. More than 9 out of 10 adults will experience headache pain at some point in their lives. It is the most common form of pain and results in time out from work or school. A moderate to severe headache often interferes with normal daily activities.
Although there are only three main categories of headaches, within those divisions are more than 200 individual types, some of which massage therapy may help to relieve or even reduce their occurrences.
Here are seven relatively common types of headaches, symptoms and common therapies used to ease them:
- Tension – Tension headaches are the most frequently occurring of all headaches. They affect women more than men. The exact origin of a tension headache is not known, but it is likely a result of muscle contraction, primarily the muscles of the skull, including occipitofrontalis which draws the scalp both posteriorly and anteriorly as well as elevates the eyebrows. When a person becomes stressed – whether it be physical or emotional – so too do the muscles, which then start to spasm, causing pain. The pain is often described as band-like pressure or tightness. Even with the pain of this type of headache, a person can function normally. While massage therapy is not a cure for tension headaches, it can help to relax a person and reduce stress resulting in less frequent and less severe ones.
- Cluster – The cause of cluster headaches is not known. It is the least common of the primary type, but it is the most severe. One theory is that certain parts of the brain simply begin to malfunction. The hypothalamus, located at the base of the brain, is most frequently mentioned as the culprit. It is responsible for the biological clock of the body and, in brain scans, has often appeared to have abnormal activity during a cluster headache. The pain of a cluster headache, which is usually around the eyes, can be excruciating and usually lasts no longer than 90 minutes. They are very difficult to treat, but typical options include inhalation of oxygen, various prescription medications such as sumatriptan (Imitrex) or zolmitriptan (Zomig), lidocaine injections or ingestion of caffeine – which helps to constrict blood vessels. Various antidepressants, prednisone, lithium or valproic acid are sometimes prescribed as a preventative measure. Since the origin of a cluster headache is unknown, the remedies used treat the symptoms rather than the cause. Before administering massage to a person suffering from cluster headaches ask the client to check with his or her primary care physician.
- Sinus – This type of headache occurs when the flow of fluid within the sinuses gets backed up and the sinus cavities become inflamed. This may be because of an allergic reaction or infection. The only way to relieve a sinus headache is to treat the underlying cause. In the case of a bacterial infection a doctor might prescribe antibiotics. For an allergy, you need to find out what triggers the allergic reaction and act accordingly. Light massage on the face, especially around the eyes, may help to move the fluid out of the sinuses. When administering massage to someone who has a sinus inflammation, limit the time he or she spends in the prone position. Laying facedown for more than a few minutes can cause the sinus fluid to shift, causing more pain and an embarrassing flow out of the nose for the client.
- Hormone – Women are the ones most affected by hormonal headaches, sometimes referred to as menstrual headaches. They experience the ebb and flow of hormones, especially estrogen and progesterone, each month. A doctor may prescribe drugs, but interfering with hormone fluctuation can be tricky. Sometimes the only remedies that can help are over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and applying a cold compress to the back of the neck and shoulders. Massage therapy has been shown to help regulate hormone fluctuation. Light massage, like lymphatic drainage, can help reduce the fluid buildup common in the week prior to menstruation. Massage can also be used to help reduce the stress that comes along and seems to increase with the monthly hormone fluctuation.
- Drug Withdrawal – These are sometimes referred to as “rebound headaches.” This type of headache pain can be caused not only by the withdrawal of habitual illicit drugs, but also commonly prescribed medications, especially pain killers as well as over-the-counter analgesics. Individuals with chronic pain or drug addiction will often increase dosages as the body becomes resistant to the medication. It is theorized that the frequent use of pain killers changes the way certain pain receptors work. The only effective way to stop these headaches is to slowly wean off the drug, which is best done under the supervision of a medical professional familiar with withdrawal symptoms. In the meantime, the headaches will most likely continue and maybe even get worse. Massage alone cannot help with this kind of headache, but it can be part of a team effort supporting the client. Traditional Swedish massage or lymph drainage massage can hasten the elimination of toxic drugs from the system as well as reduce some of the stress occurring because of the constant pain and discomfort.
- Caffeine Withdrawal – A caffeine headache is somewhat similar to a drug withdrawal headache. Caffeine is a very addictive substance enjoyed throughout the world, and many people feel they cannot start the day without the prerequisite cup or two of good strong coffee in the morning – and then again at lunch as a quick pick-me-up. Stopping the habit cold-turkey can cause a throbbing, pulsing headache relieved only by having another cup of coffee or other caffeinated drink. If someone is trying to kick caffeine, whether it is from coffee or cola drinks, it should be done slowly. A good way is to start mixing small amounts of decaffeinated versions in with the caffeinated beverages over a period of a few weeks. Massage therapy can be used to alleviate some of the stress and tension that comes with stopping any habit. It also helps to speed up the removal of toxins, such as caffeine, from the body. Afterwards be sure to offer your client water or herbal tea!
- Eyestrain – With computers at every desk, long hours watching videos or reading in the dark, it is not surprising that so many people get headaches caused by eyestrain. The best way to avoid the headache pain caused by eyestrain is to stop doing whatever may be causing them. Don’t sit in front of any kind of image projecting screen – computer or television – for long periods of time. Get up and walk around. Give your eyes and body a break. Make sure your computer has an antiglare screen. Special coatings are also available for glasses to protect your eyes from the glare. Take a few minutes to lie down, close your eyes and place a cool cloth or chilled eye-mask over them. If the pain persists make an appointment with an eye specialist, optometrist or ophthalmologist. If you don’t currently wear glasses, you may need them. If you do wear glasses you may need a different prescription. The eye doctor can also detect if there might be anything else of concern in the eyes. Massage cannot directly help with eyestrain, but any time away from a computer screen or television set is helpful. So why not use that time for massage?!
The brain itself does not feel pain; rather, it interprets the sense of pain though a complex system of sending and receiving impulses throughout the nervous system. Massage therapy can be of help by addressing the muscles and nerves affected by stress and injury, sending alternate signals to the brain, which then in turn may help to reduce the pain and discomfort of headaches.
Headaches can range from mildly annoying to debilitating and even life-threatening. An occasional headache is not usually anything serious, but chronic headaches or headaches of unbearable pain should be checked out by a doctor.
As a massage therapist you can work closely with other medical professionals and offer your client the most effective care in relieving, reducing and hopefully eliminating the seemingly omnipresent headache so common in our culture.
Editor’s Note: To learn about Migraine headaches, read Migraines With Aura Show Increased Health Risk.
Earn continuing education credit for this article contained in our Headaches, Facial Pain & Massage series. Click here to enroll.
Massage for Headaches & Neck Pain
Advanced Anatomy & Pathology
Lymphatic Drainage Massage
Stress Reduction Through Bodywork
Swedish Massage for Professionals
Headaches: Massage Benefits and Precautions