Headaches! Just thinking about them is enough to cause one! They’re so common that we even use the term to describe minor annoyances. But what are headaches, really? And can massage therapy really help?
What is a headache
Let’s get one thing straight. A headache, on its own, is not a condition or a disease. A headache is a symptom telling us that something isn’t right. Just some of those things that can lead to headaches include:
Dehydration, eating cold things too quickly, prolonged exposure to loud noises, hormonal fluctuations, illness, stress & anxiety, sudden temperature changes, allergies, low iron levels, temporomandibular joint dysfunction, high blood pressure, breathing fumes, head injury, lack of sleep, tight muscles, and all manner of less common but nasty things – diseases, cancers, organ failure, spinal injury …
But what is a headache really?
A great deal of research has been directed at determining the mechanisms responsible for the production of the pain of headache.
While the brain is itself insensitive to pain, its covering membranes and its larger blood vessels are richly supplied by nerve fibres capable of transmitting the experience of pain.
Most of the other structures within the head and upper neck, e.g., eyes, ears, nasal sinuses, skin, muscle, joints and arteries are also exquisitely pain sensitive.
Prof Paul Spira, Specialist Nerologist
Headaches are pretty easily defined, and we all know one when we feel it: it’s a pain in the head. But not all headaches are created equal.
Primary headaches are benign, recurrent headaches, not caused by an underlying disease or by structural problems.
Secondary headaches are caused by an underlying disease, like an infection, head injury, vascular disorder, brain bleed or tumour. Secondary headaches can be harmless or a sign that something is seriously wrong. But most headaches are indeed benign
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, with pain occurring on both sides of the head without other symptoms. The pain can range from very mild to severe.
Cervicogenic headaches typically cause pain at the back of the head and usually come from problems in the neck such as tension in the fine muscles at the base of the skull, following a whiplash and where there may be degeneration of the neck. Other symptoms include nausea, poor concentration and irritability.
Migraine headaches are often pulsing, and can be accompanied by nausea, dizziness, sensitivity to light and sound, and hallucinations. Some people experience migraines only rarely, while other people experience them on an almost daily basis.
Cluster headaches are less common. They can hit without warning and leave just as suddenly. This headache is typically experienced as severe pain around one eye. They get their name as someone with this type of headache would usually experience a many headaches in a short space of time (a cluster period) followed by long periods without any symptoms.
Headaches and massage
The good news is that tension headaches respond well to massage. There are several muscles in and around the head, face and neck that contribute to headaches and usually we can help you to get relief pretty quickly and reduce the frequency of headaches. This could be a result of helping to manage stress or underlying mechanical issues that can result in headaches.
Often people who experience regular benign headaches are more likely to experience high levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. Studies have found that massage can help with these issues not just in the general population, but also specifically in people who live with chronic headaches.
Some people with secondary headaches can also benefit from massage. People with fibromyalgia, for example, who often experience headaches as part of their condition, can experience both pain and stress relief with regular massage therapy. While massage during a flare-up of symptoms may need to be modified to be gentler, some people find that it can provide relief both for headache as well as for pain throughout the body.
Even better news. For people where stress and tension is a contributor to headaches, then simple relaxation massage will help in relieving headaches, without the need to push hear, poke there stretch this and prod that. It’s like magic.
As wonderful as massage therapy is, not all headaches respond to massage. While some people just need a bit of rest or a drink of water (dehydration is a surprisingly common headache cause), other people continue to experience headaches all their lives. While people who experience headaches caused by stress or muscular tension can absolutely benefit from massage, migraines triggered by things like foods or hormonal changes probably won’t see an impact. You certainly wouldn’t want to seek massage during a fully blown migraine either.
There are some times when getting a massage for headaches isn’t just unsuccessful but it could also be dangerous.
Headaches resulting from a recent head, neck, or back injury could be made worse by a well-meaning massage therapist. For example, immediately following a head injury or a car accident (it’s important to get a proper diagnosis and the most appropriate care.
Fevers often cause headaches as well as achy joints. You might think that being tired, headachy and bodyachy is a great time for massage but you’re likely to place an already stressed body under more pressure … and you might just pass along that nasty illness.
There are certainly times to get a little worried about a headache and you should make time to see your GP pronto. Particularly if:
- you don’t normally get headaches, and suddenly you start getting them
- your headaches increase in frequency
- your headaches increase in intensity
- other symptoms present – such as nausea, loss of balance, ringing of the ears, drowsiness, seizures, progressive weakness or paralysis, vision problems, speech problems and memory loss.
Unless you’re a neurologist or emergency physician, chances are these additional symptoms are rare to you.
It is better to consult your GP where there is any hint that a headache is being caused by an illness, injury or something more sinister. They can provide or recommend appropriate care for the issue causing the headache in the first place, and at that point you can ask them about whether it would be a good idea to receive a massage. Safe is always better than sorry!
Headaches can be a real, well, headache. But there’s help.
Sometimes a little change of environment is all that’s needed. If you have a headache and have been hunched over a computer for hours, try a stretch. A quick walk outside or a brief nap can help with a headache caused by eye strain. If you haven’t eaten or drank anything all day, do that. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of our lives and forget to take care of our own basic needs.
There are many health professionals that help in treating headaches. These include chiropractors, physiotherapists, acupuncturists, naturopaths, exercise physiologists, neurologists, osteopaths and many more.
And then there’s massage therapy, of course. It’s not a magical cure-all, but for many people, it really does help manage the pain and stress of headaches.
Are you one of them?
Schedule your next massage, and let’s find out together.
David Clayton is the Principal Therapist at Myomasters Massage located in the inner north and north east of Adelaide. He has a passion for supporting humans to live the lives they were to born to live using massage and soft tissue therapies. He has a particular interest in assisting people to recover from stress, anxiety and trauma using compassionate and nurturing touch.