Some days you can feel it coming on- the dull ache turning into a pounding headache. Even those lasting a few hours can feel debilitating, worse are the headaches lasting days or chronically recurring. Though headaches generally fall into two categories, tension and vascularized, there are subcategories within the two with varying symptoms. For pain relief, many people automatically reach for aspirin, in fact, 15% of Australians take painkillers for headache at any given time.1 Others, however, are finding positive results with massage therapy and complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) for lasting relief.Tension headaches are the most prevalent type of headache and there are two subcategories of tension headaches:
Episodic and Chronic. Episodic are the common headaches most people experience. These headaches are generally characterized by a dull, continual pain, often accompanied by a sore neck. They are often described as “vice-like,” where muscular contractions are felt in the neck, back of the head, temples, and/or forehead. Often, these headaches stem from physical or emotional stress. Additionally, eye strain, poor posture, or cervical misalignment may initiate episodic headaches. Experiencing this type of headache close to daily, or for an extended length of time, is considered chronic. This pain may feel constant and relentless. While stress may be an underlying result, these headaches often stem from an exacerbated physical or psychological issue including depression, anxiety, and fatigue. A doctor’s visit may be necessary to rule out prescription reactions or a medical condition.
Slightly different in nature are vascularized headaches: Migraines and Clusters. Often described as “pounding” or “throbbing,” migraine headaches occur from constriction of blood vessels in and outside of the brain sending pain signals to the brain. These headaches are generally focused to only one side of the head and may cause vision sensitivity and nausea. Women far outnumber men as migraine sufferers. Common triggers for migraines are food, stress, temperature, certain scents, fatigue or hormonal fluctuations. Cluster headaches, on the other hand, affect men in greater numbers and the intense pain is generally localized to one eye. Cluster headaches often occur seasonally which may link them to allergies, though they’re also triggered by alcohol & cigarettes.
How, then, can massage therapy help alleviate tension and vascular headaches? Focusing on the trapezius, sternocleidomastoid, levator scapula, and suboccipital muscles, the massage therapist helps decrease muscle tension and spasms while increasing blood flow. Attention to the jaw and facial muscles may also lessen headaches derived from TMJ or sinus pain. Reducing muscle tension promotes vasodilatation (widening of the blood vessels) to allow greater circulation. This increase in circulation helps bring oxygenated blood to muscle and brain cells, elicits the release of endorphins (body‘s natural pain killers), and reduces stress. General Swedish massage techniques, myofascial release, acupressure, and trigger point therapy are effective methods for decreasing muscular pressure on nerves and blood vessels.
Passive stretching is also beneficial for those suffering from chronic headaches. Combining massage therapy with physiotherapy can double effectiveness for increasing range of motion in the neck and shoulders, thereby reducing the number and intensity of headaches. Likewise, incorporating the element of chiropractic care can help improve structural alignment especially in cases of whiplash or injury. Working together, massage therapy loosens surrounding muscles and can help hold chiropractic cervical adjustments longer.
There’s no question, headaches are a pain. Suffering through them, however, is unnecessary. Continually turning to pharmaceutical drugs for headache relief may lead to unwanted side effects; massage therapy’s side effects include relaxation, stress reduction, and alleviation of pain. Incorporating massage therapy and other complementary and alternative medicines into your well-being regime can help alleviate pain, and reduce chronic headaches. Decreasing tension and stress is not simply beneficial for your body, but your head too!