Did you know that headache pain is the third most common pain complaint world wide? Not only are headaches common, they can also be very disabling, leading to a decreased quality of life. Many people do not realize that physical therapy for headaches is one of the best, most effective treatments available today.

According to the International Headache Society, there are 14 primary and secondary headache disorders. For example, some headache pain is caused by migraine disorder, neck trauma, head injury, jaw disorders, neck dysfunction and tension type pain.

Physical therapy for headaches is effective for several of these types. If you currently suffer from headaches, answer these questions to determine if physical therapy for your headache is appropriate.

How often do you:

  1. Wake with a headache?
  2. Get a headache after sitting for prolonged periods of time at your computer?
  3. Note neck pain, stiffness or soreness along with your headache?
  4. Grind or brux your teeth at night?
  5. Feel tender or sore “knots” in the muscles of the neck, upper back and shoulders?
  6. Note that your jaw/shoulders “clench” when under stress or with prolonged work?
  7. Sit most of the day?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then physical therapy for headaches is a good choice.

Now answer these questions related to your health history and their connection to persistent headaches.

Have you experienced:

  1. Whiplash from a motor vehicle accident?
  2. A head injury such as a fall or concussion?
  3. A surgery to your neck, shoulders, face or head?
  4. Episodes of dizziness or vertigo?
  5. Persistent neck pain?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then physical therapy for headaches is the right move. The above questions help us determine your likelihood or either a cervicogenic headache or a tension type headache. Both headache types are highly treatable in physical therapy with a combination of hands on manual therapy and physical therapy exercises.

Cervicogenic Headache

A cervicogenic headache is highly treatable in physical therapy. These headaches come from a neck problem and the pain is referred into the head. For this reason, it is considered a secondary headache disorder because the symptoms are generated outside the head itself. Patients typically describe the pain on one side of the head only and it’s accompanied by neck pain as well. Common locations include the base of the skull, behind the eye or in a line from the base of the skull toward the face or eye. In physical therapy, we focus treatments on correcting the neck problem, and typically within the treatment session the headache pain is reduced or eliminated. Commonly, the upper neck is to blame for cervicogenic headaches. Once manual therapy is performed to improve the function of the neck, posture correction and physical therapy exercises are prescribed. These changes allow the neck to heal and recover. As the neck heals and starts working better, the headaches will resolve.

hands holding Stress sign

Tension Type Headaches

Physical therapy is often the best medicine for tension type headaches. Considered a primary headache disorder, tension type headaches feel like a dull, aching pain and often includes tightness across the forehead or sides/back of the head. Patients often describe feeling like they are wearing a headband that is too tight. The scalp, shoulder muscles and neck muscles are often tender to the touch. Sometimes, tension type headaches are hard to distinguish from migraines. The most common trigger is stress.

Physical therapy for tension type headaches focuses on muscle relaxation and retraining and prescribed exercises to promote relaxation at home. Physical therapy for tension type headaches also includes hands-on manual therapy and soft tissue mobilization. Education on pain sensitization is also essential in the recovery from tension type headaches. When stress and anxiety begin to create pain in the body, it’s time to see a physical therapist.

woman holding jaw in painAdditionally, headaches that emanate from jaw pain or dysfunction are highly treatable with physical therapy. Improving the function of the jaw with manual therapy, soft tissue mobilization and prescribed physical therapy exercises is very effective in reducing these headaches. For those patients who grind or brux their teeth at night, a mouth appliance is often prescribed to rest the jaw and surrounding muscles.

Sometimes the headache disorders mentioned above can be triggers for migraines. If you noted yes to the earlier questions, contact us at 503-295-2585 so that we can help you with your headache pain. Headaches can be so debilitating, draining you of your energy and making it hard to concentrate. If that’s the case for you, please see a physical therapist today – your head and brain will thank you!!

Sandra Stryker, PT, MPT, COMT, FAAOMPT