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Can Physical Therapy Help Relieve Headaches and Migraines?

Severe headaches affect millions of people worldwide. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics find over 25 percent of American adults aged 18 to 44 report the most significant number of debilitating headaches, with women reporting twice as many headaches and migraines as men. After the age of 44, the number of people reporting severe headaches and migraines declines.

Headaches may significantly interfere with your quality of life and ability to attend to daily tasks and responsibilities. Although most headaches are not a sign of a serious health problem, you should always discuss headache symptoms with your physician, especially if you have symptoms of sudden, severe head pain.

Types of Headaches and How PT Can Help

Researchers have identified many types of headaches, but the most common include tension, migraines, and cluster headaches.

1. Tension headaches

Tension headaches may be episodic, occurring less than 15 days a month, or chronic, happening 15 or more days each month. Headaches can last from 30 minutes to several days.

Symptoms of a tension headache typically include dull aching pain, tightness or squeezing sensation across the forehead, and sore muscles in the head or neck.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, causes of tension headaches may include:

  • Eye strain triggered by focusing on a computer or another digital device
  • Stress, a common trigger for headaches
  • Temporomandibular disorders, affecting the jaw joints and surrounding muscles and ligaments, which can cause headaches
  • Insomnia or other sleep issues

Researchers have also found links between tension headaches and grinding the teeth, clenching the jaw, jaw dysfunction, forward head or other poor posture, and depression.

Physical therapy helps relieve tension headaches

A 2019 systemic review of studies regarding whether physical therapy can improve the quality of life for those suffering from headaches found therapy is an “effective approach in improving the quality of life” of those suffering from tension headaches or migraines.

Because tension headaches are often related to poor posture, jaw tightness or dysfunction, and stress, your physical therapist will work with you to:

  • Strengthen postural muscles, including core, neck, and shoulder muscles, to correct forward head and improve overall posture
  • Reduce muscle tightness and contractions
  • Relieve jaw pain and improve function and mobility
  • Relieve stress and provide education on stress management techniques
  • Provide information on achieving better sleep

Your physical therapist may use a variety of modalities to reduce pain and inflammation and relieve muscle tension. You will also learn strategies to reduce muscle strain when using digital devices and how to maintain correct posture to avoid stressing muscles.

2. Migraine headache

Symptoms of migraines are different and often more severe than those caused by tension headaches. Before a migraine occurs, you may experience an aura or other visual disturbance warning. Once the migraine begins, it can last for hours up to days, with intense pain hampering your ability to function in your daily activities.

A migraine is likely to cause the following symptoms:

  • More severe pain than a tension headache
  • Throbbing or pounding pains
  • Symptoms focused on one side of the head
  • Pain that gets worse when you’re near bright lights or loud sounds
  • Nausea or vomiting

After a migraine attack subsides, you might feel lethargic and confused for several hours.

Physical therapy helps relieve migraine headaches

A physical therapy program can help reduce migraine pain, improve impaired physical function and mobility, and reduce the intensity and frequency of migraines.

A study published in 2020 concluded physical therapists should focus treatment on the following when treating those with migraines:

  • Musculoskeletal dysfunctions, including any injuries to the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, or spinal discs
  • Vestibular symptoms related to the inner ear affecting balance, spatial disorientation, or loss of equilibrium
  • Postural control impairment, causing dizziness or poor balance when executing movements

To help relieve migraines, your PT may utilize a combination of hands-on manual therapy, an exercise routine, and various modalities to reduce pain, sensitivity, and muscle tension, strengthen postural muscles, and improve balance. Your physical therapist may also use vestibular rehabilitation, a specialized PT program to improve dizziness, balance problems, and poor posture.

Note: For some people, exercise may trigger migraine symptoms. Your doctor or physical therapist can help determine if an exercise program is appropriate for your symptoms.

4. Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches occur suddenly and often without warning. They are excruciating headaches that usually last 15 minutes to three hours but can last much longer. Cluster headaches tend to stop as abruptly as they start, and you may not experience another for weeks, months, or years.

Symptoms of cluster headaches include severe pain behind or around one eye that may radiate to other parts of your face, head, and neck. There may be swelling around the affected eye, excessive tearing, and a drooping eyelid.

Physical therapy for cluster headaches

Research suggests cluster headaches may be related to dysfunction of the body’s biological clock. Although scientists are not sure what triggers cluster headaches, studies suggest symptoms may worsen if you drink alcohol during an active headache.

Some medications and other acute treatments may decrease the severity of pain and shorten the duration of the headache.

Sources cited by Very Well Health found the following practices may improve symptoms of cluster headaches:

  • Breathing exercises, including yogic breathing practices
  • Consistent sleep schedule
  • Daily exercise
  • Stress reduction
  • Avoiding tobacco and alcohol

Your physical therapist can teach you breathing and other exercises and provide tips for reducing stress and improving sleep.

Athletic Physical Therapy (APT) is a respected leader in advanced physical therapy treatments. We have helped thousands of people reduce pain, strengthen their bodies, and regain independence.

Our expert team will work with you to reduce pain, improve muscle strength and stability of your core and neck muscles, correct poor posture, increase neck range of motion, and relieve stress. We will also design a home exercise program to help you minimize the risk of recurrence.

Don’t let severe headaches prevent you from living the quality of life you deserve. Contact APT to learn how we can help.