Did you know that an estimated 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches? Chronic headaches are one of the most common complaints made to healthcare practitioners every year. These headache sufferers are looking for some answers and treatment. Headaches are most often treated with over-the-counter or prescription medications. These treatments are highly effective, but can be a temporary solution for a chronic problem. Massage therapy has shown to be effective in treating migraine and tension headaches.
Tension Headaches: These types of headaches can be caused by muscle spasms, trigger points, TMJ dysfunction, neck alignment, stress, hormonal/chemical changes, dehydration, and stress/anxiety. Tension headaches can show up as a tightness or constricting feeling in the head, as pain in the head or referred pain in the neck, shoulders, and arms, as muscle spasms/pain, as pain in the jaw, or as pain around the temple and behind the eyes. Tension headaches usually do not come with other sensitivities, such as sensitivity to light and sound or nausea.
Migraines:These types of headaches are still somewhat mysterious. They are believed to be caused by neck alignment, chemical/hormonal changes, neurological problems, vascular problems, environmental irritants, food sensitivities, and/or blood sugar regulation. Migraines can be very severe and can last up to several days. These headaches do usually come with some sensitivities, such as sensitivity to light, sound, and nausea/vomiting.
Both tension headaches and migraines have been effectively treated by massage therapy. Not only can massage help relieve headache pain, but it can also help to prevent headaches from occurring. Massage is helpful for many reasons:
- Massage promotes circulation: Massage can increase blood flow in areas that might be ischemic (lacking blood flow) and therefore help relieve pain.
- Massage decreases pain from Trigger Points: Trigger Points are areas of hyper-irritable tissue that are very tender and also can refer pain to other areas of the body. Trigger Point Therapy or Neuromuscular Therapy (NMT) can help decrease the pain and referrals into the neck and head.
- Massage relieves muscle spasms/tension: Massage can help loosen chronically tight muscles and taught bands of tissue. This helps with muscle balance and neck alignment. Also, loosening the muscles that attach to the base of the skull (sub-occipitals) can relieve the tension headaches that travel up the back of the head and into the eye and the ‘vice-like’ constricting headaches so many people suffer from.
- Massage helps regulate certain hormones: Massage therapy has shown to decrease levels of the stress hormone Cortisol. Massage therapy also increases endorphins and stimulates the Para-Sympathetic Nervous system, therefore promoting relaxation. Because of this hormone effect, massage therapy can improve the quality of your sleep. It is a happy little cycle: decrease stress = better sleep = fewer headaches = decrease stress =……and so on and so forth.
- Migraines: The research is unclear exactly why massage therapy helps those who suffer migraine headaches. However, in multiple studies, massage therapy was shown to decrease the frequency and the duration of migraines.
One of the most exciting things about this research is that there is finally a non-pharmocological treatment for headaches. Massage therapy can be a treatment that is safe and effective–not just a cover up. However, I must say that there are MANY potential causes of headaches, and some are a lot more serious than others. If you do suffer from chronic headaches, you want to check with your doctor first to make sure you do not need additional treatment. Once you get the okay from your doctor, provide as much information about your headaches as you can to your massage therapist, and he or she can help develop a protocol that is right for you.