Can Massage Help with Headaches? (2022)

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Can Massage Help with Headaches? (1)

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Can Massage Help with Headaches? (2)

Headaches are a near-universal experience; half of all adults worldwide suffer at least one headache a year. In America alone, 45 million people suffer from regular headaches, whether due to stress, chronic medical conditions, allergies, or hereditary or lifestyle factors.

Headaches can be classified in three main categories, depending on their characteristics and causes:

Tension headache

  • Very common
  • Mild to moderate intensity
  • Can be treated with over-the-counter pain medications
  • Typically last between 30 minutes and 1 hour
  • Pain often occurs on both sides of the head
  • Three types: infrequent episodic, frequent episodic and chronic
  • Can be triggered by muscle tension, bone misalignment, eye strain and other musculoskeletal damage
Vascular headache
  • Targets a specific area of the head
  • Characterized by a “pounding” feeling
  • Can be caused by swelling or constricting of the nerves or blood vessels
  • Usually more severe than and longer-lasting than tension-type headaches
  • Include the classic migraine, aura-less migraine, cluster headache and sinus headache
Traction-inflammatory headache
  • Symptom of other health issues
  • Can manifest as any type of headache, from tension to migraine
  • Can be a sign of a bacterial or viral infection
  • Causes include meningitis, stroke or a tumor
  • Symptoms include slurred speech, numbness in the body and difficulties with motor control

Source:
Zagozdon, R. (2018, April 24). Massage and Headache Relief. American Massage Therapy Association. https://www.amtamassage.org/publications/massage-therapy-journal/massage-and-headache-relief/

Most headaches can be treated with a combination of medication, hydration or certain therapies, including massage — especially if the headache stems from muscular tension.

Can Massage Help With Headaches?

Massage has been shown to be an effective therapy for sufferers of both episodic tension headaches and chronic migraines.

Since the most common type of headache can be caused by muscle tension, massage can help alleviate some of the pain associated with tight muscles. Massage techniques that target muscles in the shoulders, back and neck are especially beneficial; not only because they release tension and ease spasms, but also because they can increase circulation to areas that may be lacking adequate blood flow (another source of headaches). Even a short massage lasting 30 minutes or less can help reduce headache intensity or prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Studies have shown that massage can even aid in hormone regulation, reducing the production of stress hormone adrenocorticotropin and increasing oxytocin levels. Excessive amounts of adrenocorticotropin and other hormones like estrogen have been linked to headache occurrence.

Those who seek massage therapy for headaches should know that, in some cases, massage can actually make headaches worse. It’s important to determine (to the best of your ability) the source of your headache before seeking alternative treatments. Consult the chart above; if you think your headache is traction-inflammatory, i.e. caused by an underlying health issue, it’s best to seek medical attention and follow your doctor’s recommendations.

Common Massage Techniques to Help with Headaches

If you have access to a massage therapist or high-quality massage chair, there are certain massage techniques that may have a more significant effect on headache reduction.

Massage TechniqueDeep tissue/Swedish massageTrigger point massageNeuromuscular massage
Areas TargetedFull body, areas of concernFull body, areas of concernNeck, shoulders, back, other areas of concern
Source(s)Massage therapist, massage chairMassage therapistMassage therapist, targeted massager
CharacteristicsFirm pressure and slow, gliding strokes targeting large muscle groupsSustained pressure is applied directly to tight or sore musclesCombination of deep tissue and trigger point massage
BenefitsRelaxes strained muscles

Compression can relieve pain or pressure that can cause tension headaches, particularly in the neck, back and shoulders

Relaxes strained muscles

Especially effective for headaches when applied in the neck and shoulder region

Pinpoints and releases stiff muscles or trigger points

Targets specific muscle groups

Sources:
1 “Efficacy of manual and manipulative therapy in the perception of pain and cervical motion in patients with tension-type headache: a randomized, controlled clinical trial.” Espí-López, G., Gómez-Conesa, A. (2014). Journal of Chiropractic Medicine. 2014 Mar;13(1):4-13. doi: 10.1016/j.jcm.2014.01.004.

Can a Massage Chair Relieve Headache Pain?

Can Massage Help with Headaches? (3)

Massage chairs with advanced robotics can mimic the techniques delivered by a massage therapist, even replicating the variable pressure of human hands. Many massage chairs include deep tissue or Swedish massage in their automatic programs, using a combination of mechanized rollers and inflatable airbags to administer both targeted and compression massage.

Massage chairs that offer full-body massage therapy can be effective for headache relief, since any tension release helps. To target specific muscle tension that can lead to headaches, look for massage chairs with massage functionality in the headrest and upper back area. Headrest rollers can target the neck, upper back and temples, while strategically placed airbags may be able to target the shoulders. Alternatively, a pillow massager or massage gun can provide a similar function with added portability.

Self Massage for Tension Headaches

Fortunately, if you are physically able, there are plenty of ways to give yourself a massage at home. Massage techniques for headaches are the easiest to perform on yourself, since most of the techniques target easy-to-reach areas like the face, temples, neck, shoulders and even specific pressure points in the hands.

It’s important that you avoid causing yourself pain while self-massaging — if a technique starts to hurt beyond normal tension release, stop right away. Also, make sure to stretch your muscles out after massaging them, as that can prevent them from tensing up again too soon.

Try out the massage techniques below to relieve tension headaches.

To relieve facial tension:

  1. Place a thumb on each temple (the soft spot between the corner of your eye and your ear) and apply gentle pressure.
  2. Rub your thumbs in small, circular motions, gradually increasing the pressure.
  3. Slowly move your thumbs up along your hairline until they meet in the middle of your forehead, then reverse direction, stopping at your temples. Continue until the tension subsides.

To relieve neck tension (1):

  1. Place both hands on the back of your head and interlace your fingers.
  2. Drop your head forward. Allow the weight of your arms to pull your head gently down, stretching the muscles of your neck and upper back. Raise your head and repeat as needed.

To relieve neck tension (2):

  1. Place your hands, palms-down, on your shoulders at the base of your neck. Inhale deeply.
  2. Exhale, drop your head slowly back and squeeze your shoulder muscles with your hands.
  3. Gently “knead” your shoulder muscles forward and back, alternately gliding firm fingertips up to the base of your skull and down the back of your neck. You can also do this while rubbing your fingertips in small circles.
  4. Drop your head forward slightly and repeat the motions in step 3. Continue this pattern until the tension dissipates.

To relieve shoulder tension:

  1. For this technique, you’ll need a flat wall space and a tennis ball or other small, firm ball.
  2. With your back against the wall and your feet directly underneath your hips, bend your knees until you’re in a partial squat.
  3. Lean forward and place the ball between your right shoulder blade and the wall.
  4. Slowly stand up while pressing against the ball. Let the ball roll slowly over the muscles along the right side of your spine. Stop when you find a tender spot, still pressing and wait for the pain to subside.
  5. Perform step 4 in reverse, slowly sitting back down into a squat, until the ball is back at your right shoulder blade.
  6. Switch the ball to your left shoulder blade and repeat steps 4-5 until your muscle pain has subsided.

General headache relief:

  1. With the thumb and forefinger of one hand, locate the skin between the thumb and forefinger of your other hand. This is the LI-4 acupressure point, which connects to the nerves in your cranium.
  2. Using firm but gentle pressure, pinch this area and hold for 30 seconds, or until your headache subsides. Repeat as necessary.

Self Massage for Sinus Headaches

Sinus cavities inflamed by a cold or allergies can cause intense pressure and a dull, aching pain behind your eyes. While nasal decongestants, acupuncture, warm compresses or steam can relieve some of this discomfort, self-massage techniques can also help reduce the pressure.

To relieve a sinus headache (1):

  1. Place your index fingers between the inner corners of your eyes and the bridge of your nose.
  2. Apply firm but gentle pressure and hold your fingers in place for 15 seconds.
  3. Maintaining this pressure, stroke both fingers downward along either side of your nose.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until the pressure subsides.

To relieve a sinus headache (2):

  1. Close your eyes and place your thumbs under your eyebrows at the inside corner of each eye socket. Apply gentle pressure.
  2. Slowly move your thumbs toward the outside of your eyebrows, rubbing your fingertips in small circles. Continue all the way around your eyes and stop at the bridge of your nose.
  3. Place your thumbs back at the inner corners of your eyes and repeat step 2 several times. Try spending a little more time at the starting point, where the bridge of your nose meets the beginning of your brows.

Self Massage for Migraines

Migraines are difficult (almost impossible) to stop once they’ve started — the best remedies are rest and time. However, some simple self-massage techniques can help reduce their intensity.

To relieve migraine pain (1):

  1. Place each thumb between the inner corners of your eyes and the bridge of your nose.
  2. Apply firm but gentle pressure and hold your thumbs in place for 15 seconds.
  3. Release and re-apply pressure as needed.

To relieve migraine pain (2):

  1. Place the index and middle fingers of each hand on the back of your neck, at the base of your skull and on either side of your spine.
  2. With firm but gentle pressure, rub your fingertips in small circles for 30 seconds while slowly tilting your head from side to side.

To relieve migraine pain (3):

  1. Place the index, middle and ring fingers of each hand on your temples.
  2. Pressing down gently, rub small circles for 30 seconds. Continue as needed.

Self Massage for Allergy Headaches

Few things ruin a beautiful day faster than seasonal allergies. When pollen strikes, besides reaching for the allergy medication, you can try these easy self-massage techniques.

To relieve an allergy headache (1):

  1. Place your index fingers between the inner corners of your eyes and the bridge of your nose.
  2. Apply firm but gentle pressure and hold your fingers in place for 15 seconds.
  3. Maintaining this pressure, stroke both fingers downward along either side of your nose.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until the pressure subsides.

To relieve an allergy headache (2):

  1. Place your index and middle fingers on the back of your neck, at the base of your skull on either side of your spine.
  2. With gentle pressure, glide your fingertips upward into your skull for 30 seconds while slowly tilting your head from side to side.

FAQs: Massage for Headache Relief

Q: Is self-massage safe?

A: If you are gentle and understand how to administer a certain technique, self-massage can be a convenient way to relieve headaches yourself. However, there are some types of headaches that should not be addressed via massage, including traction-inflammatory headaches caused by infection or stroke.

Q: Which massage chair features can help with headache pain?

A: Any massage chair that delivers deep tissue or Swedish massage can help with full-body tension release. To target specific muscle groups that can lead directly to a headache, look for a massage chair with functionality in the headrest, upper back and shoulders.

Q: Can heat help with a headache?

A: The short answer is yes, particularly when it comes to tension headaches (migraine sufferers prefer cold therapy). However, temperature extremes may increase the intensity of a headache, so it’s best to try a heating pad or heated massage chair on a low setting to start. Stop if the heat becomes uncomfortable or the headache worsens.

Have more questions about massage for headaches? The certified specialists at Massage Chair Store can guide you through the different tension-easing techniques available in our high-quality massage chairs, and can help you identify the best product for your needs. Reach out today for your free consultation.

Can Massage Help with Headaches? (4)

About the Author

David S. Lawhorn, PT, DPT

Clinic Manager at the Center for Physical Therapy & Exercise

David Lawhorn, Clinic Manager at the Center for Physical Therapy and Exercise, is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, licensed by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). David’s expertise in directing, treating and educating patients in physical therapy and personal wellness is informed by over 15 years of experience as a physical therapist (PT) as well as his own successful sports career and extensive experience in working with other athletes.

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