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Massage for Headaches




Can massage help my headaches?

Of the thousands of people who have come to me for massage therapy, many of them were trying massage to see if it would help their chronic headaches. A headache can be caused by many things, but if your physician has already ruled out any more serious causes, there's a very good chance that massage can help with your chronic headaches--both the frequency and the intensity. Fortunately, more and more physicians are learning how valuable massage therapy is for headaches, so they're recommending it to their patients and even getting massage for their own headaches! In fact, here's what Julian Whitaker, MD, has to say about it:

No longer considered a luxury, massage is now recognized as a powerful therapeutic tool. As researchers continue to study the effectiveness of massage therapy for migraines, it’s well known that massage therapy aids in releasing pain and decreasing anxiety, tension, and stress—which can help tame the severity and frequency of migraines.

What do muscles have to do with headaches?

Something many people don't realize is that headaches can be caused by tense muscles in the neck and upper shoulders. One particular tense neck muscle can even make you think that you're having a migraine, so we call it the "migraine mimicker." Another neck muscle can trigger a headache at the temple or over the ear. One other muscle can trigger a headache behind the eye, another can trigger a headache at the top of the head, and one other can trigger a headache at the back of the head.

Can my headaches be caused by an old injury?

It's very common for an injury that happened years earlier to cause chronic headaches now. An auto accident, a sports injury, or falling off a bicycle can cause small cuts or tears in the tendons and muscles deep in the neck. Your body will "patch" the tear by putting scar tissue there. Unfortunately, scar tissue just isn't as flexible as the muscle or tendon tissue was before the injury. Then, over time, the muscles and tendons can get tighter from not having their full flexibility, which can then trigger headaches.

What kind of massage therapist do I need?

To get relief for your headaches from massage therapy, you will need a massage therapist who understands the anatomy of the neck and upper shoulder muscles and one who also knows the best massage techniques to get the best results. If the massage therapist you schedule an appointment with has not taken Continuing Education classes specifically for treatment of the neck and shoulders, you could possibly get minimal or no results. Yet, for basically the same expense as for an ineffective massage therapist, you could see one who may help you get relief from your headache after the first treatment session.

As a massage therapist since 2002, I'm very experienced at working the neck and shoulders, but also skilled at finding a massage pressure that is both effective and tolerable for you. Many therapists will use more pressure than you can tolerate, thinking that they know what's best for you. However, once they reach a pressure that you have a hard time tolerating, that will trigger your nervous system's "fight or flight" response, which will start tightening the muscle they're working on even more to try to protect it from injury. The result is that you don't get the relief you hoped for and that area is sore for a week!

How many sessions will it take to help?

With a massage therapist who is knowledgeable, experienced, and skilled enough to help you get relief from your headaches, it will also take a commitment on your part to continue the treatments so you will get the longest lasting results. You may feel significantly better after your first treatment session, but it could take anywhere from three sessions to as many as eight or nine sessions to get your neck and shoulder muscles under control. If you stop going for massage treatments before you reach that point, your headaches may return in a short period of time.

What will the first treatment session be like?

At the beginning of your massage treatment, I will use a medium pressure (not too light and not too heavy) to start gradually warming up all the tissue (the muscles and tendons) at the back and sides of the neck down to the upper shoulder. This is one of the most important steps for getting effective results--if the tissue is not warmed up before working deeper into it, you could experience soreness for quite a few days and possibly be bruised by it.

Next, I will begin to work more slowly over the same area, but with a little more pressure that will get deeper into the muscles and tendons. At this point, I will ask you to let me know if any spot that I massage is more sensitive or gives you more pain than other areas and/or triggers a pain in your head. Using a 10-point scale for pain level, a '0' would be no pain and a '10" would be excruciating pain or pain that you can't tolerate. To get the best results, you should never let the pain level to go above an '8', which is a level that's not too comfortable, but still tolerable.

Once you notice a spot that is giving you a pain level of around a '6', '7', or '8', you'll need to let me know. These tight spots that are painful are called trigger points and I will use a technique to "release" them. The technique I use that works most effectively involves holding a steady pressure on that spot while you breathe slowly and deeply. This combination gets your nervous system to "let go" of that trigger point. As it releases, you'll notice the pain level going down: 6...5...4...3...2. It usually takes a few deep breaths to release these trigger points down to a '2' or '3' but some can take over a minute, especially the deeper ones or any that have been there for a long time (such as an old injury).

Working together, you and I will try to find and release as many trigger points as possible in the areas that commonly cause headaches. There may be as few as two or three trigger points causing your headaches or as many as fifteen or twenty. One major difference between my massage and one from many other massage therapists is that I will document in your file how many of these trigger points were found and their general location in order to track your progress from one massage session to the next.

What should I do after the massage?

You will probably feel pretty good shortly after we've released many of your trigger points. The first session typically gives 50% to 80% pain relief. However, it's important that you don't overuse the area we've worked on because your progress could then take steps backwards. You may experience soreness, which is typical for the next day or two, but an ice pack on the area for 15 to 20 minutes can help.

Your next massage session should be scheduled as soon as you can fit it in, but no sooner than two days from the first session. At your second session, it's typical to only have about half as many trigger points as the first session and your third session will typically have about half as many as the second session.

Howard Northrup, LMT
(321) 258-1201
MA# 35627