Can massage get rid of a tension headache?
Commonly people who come to us for a neck and shoulder massage will report back with excitement that they have not had a headache since there last treatment. Or that headaches were reduced. But can massage get rid of a tension headache? I wanted to explore the evidence surrounding massage treatments and headaches. There are many different types of headaches but for the purpose of this blog I will focus on Tension headaches and Migraines.
When headaches start, they can be seen as a warning system, it can be a sign that we are dehydrated, need new glasses or are stressed. We can also experience headaches if we have a cold or a flu and they can be a sign of missing meals. These tension headaches are also commonly associated with stress and anxiety.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. In my experience these are the types of headache that respond well to massage. This type of headache can be associated with muscle tension irritating the Trigeminal Nerve. Symptoms they may include neck pain, muscle tension and of course headache pain. They are often described as a “tension type headache” and clients will often be aware of the physical factors that have caused them to build up. This can be due to poor posture, stress, squinting and lack of physical activity to name just a few. Chronic tension headaches occur when the headaches occur 15 times a month for 3 months in a row.
The muscles involved with tension headaches
Tension headaches occur when the neck and shoulder muscles or muscles of the skull become tight. The muscles at the base of our skull are known as the suboccipital muscles. These muscles have a hard job – our heads are heavy, and they help support it. There are 26 muscles in the neck, in pairs or groups of 3. They work to move the head and neck, forwards, backwards and side to side as well as attaching to the shoulders.
For the above reason this is why an experienced massage therapist will provide a massage of the neck and shoulders in headaches (to release the neck and shoulder muscles) whilst working on trigger points. Trigger points are commonly known as “knots”and you can read more about these in our article here.
Massage and tension headaches, the evidence.
NHS websites advise massage as a way of combating the stress resulting in tension headaches. A study published in 2019 found friction massage to be effective in the treatment of tension type headaches. In the trial they found dry needling and some massage techniques to be equally as effective. This supports NICE guidance on the use of acupuncture for headaches although the use of massage has not yet been acknowledged. A 2002 study found that muscle specific massage such as trigger point therapy could reduce the frequency of chronic headaches. This evidence demonstrates that perhaps massage can get rid of a tension headache.
It is very unlikely that anyone experiencing a migraine will want to come for a massage, instead they would probably rather be in a dark room as they are sensitive to light with very little or no stimuli. NHS websites provide some further information about migraines
Can massage help Migraines?
Much of the evidence base surrounding massage and migraines involves only small studies and there is certainly opportunity for more research in this area. That said some study’s have shown some positive results:
A small study in 2006 found those who had massages had fewer migraines and slept better when receiving massages and in the three weeks proceeding receiving massage therapy. On average the study showed the group having massage had a 34% reduction in migraines during the weeks they received massage therapy and a 30% reduction in the weeks following. The control group, in comparison had reductions of 7% and 2% .
In a 2012 study that retrospectively looked at the triggers and relieving factors in people with migraine, massage was used by numerous people with migraine to relieve symptoms. In randomised studies where participants received massage therapy focusing on the neck. Those who received massage therapy had significantly less migraine pain compared to the control group. From the first massage to the last, the massage group reported a 71% reduction in the intensity of their pain.
Current NICE guidance recommends acupuncture as a course of treatment but at present there is no mention of massage
Headaches and nutrition
I asked the lovely Lottie Williams, nutritional therapist for her advice when it comes to nutrition and headaches. This is what she said:
“While it’s always a good idea to discuss new or recurrent headaches/migraines with your GP, there are a few things you can eat and drink to help provide relief. The first thing is to do is make sure you’re adequately hydrated. Most adults need 1.5-2L a day and dehydration is probably the most common cause of headaches. Sip water and herbal teas throughout the day and increase the amount on hot days or if you’re doing lots of exercise.
There are a few nutrients which may play a role in preventing headaches and migraines, two of the best researched are vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and the mineral magnesium. You can find B2 in beef, tofu, milk, salmon, mushrooms and spinach. Magnesium is found in dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, nuts, seeds and legumes. Some people may choose to take a vitamin B2 and magnesium supplements, it’s a good idea to discuss this with a nutritional health professional or your GP to make sure it’s suitable for you, especially if you’re taking medication”
Lottie Williams, BA Hons, DipCNM, mBANT, rCNHC
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When to seek medical help for headaches
- Slurred speech
- Strange behaviour
- Arm or limp weakness.
- ‘Thunder bolt’ headaches.
- Your headache keeps coming back
Massage therapists have been improving blood flow and relieving headaches for most of their careers with massage therapy. More research is always needed into just how and why this works. If you are experiencing tension headaches, why not try a massage for yourself to see if it can help.