Can massage therapy alleviate tension headache?

Do you suffer from tension headache? 

Tension headache signs and symptoms

Tension headache signs and symptoms

The characteristics of tension headache are dull intense ache usually felt in the same areas on both sides of the head: the base of the head, above the eyes, around the temples and ears, referring into the jaw. Intensity varies from mild to severe. The feeling of tight band around the head is usual.It is the most common type of headache.

Tension headache may last anywhere from half an hour to several days. It can be brought on or worsened by any of these factors: dehydration or missing meals, lack of sleep and tiredness, eye strain, unbalanced posture, even by certain smells or excess noise, bright light or simply by stress and anxiety. Or it can come on without any apparent reason.

Upper cross syndrome by Vladimir Janda

Upper cross syndrome by Vladimir Janda

Poor posture with forward head carriage or upper cross syndrome can cause hypertonicity in upper back and neck. Stress or anxiety may result in subconscious shrugging of the shoulders and over time chronic muscle tightness and even muscle shortening. This is why other associated symptoms such as neck ache and stiffness, and tight shoulders are commonly present with tension headaches as well.

More often than not trigger points develop in these tight, over stressed muscles and worsen the problem by referring pain. This can be easily distinguished by their referral pattern. When the trigger point is compressed, it refers pain to the same location where the headache is felt.

More serious possible underlying causes of headache must always be ruled out. Therefore massage and self-help are always complimentary not supplementary to primary medical care. Always consult with your physician first!

Can massage help alleviate tension headache?

Yes it can. In my experience treating clients with tension headache, there is reduction in frequency and duration of tension type headaches and the treatment proves very beneficial in reduction of stress levels and clients outlook on the problem as they feel more in control.

The neck, shoulder muscles and scalp of the head are massaged. These are the main areas where tension is held and most common sites for trigger points. Although you will feel the benefit after just one treatment, it is best to repeat it at least once a week for couple of months, providing there are no contraindications to massage. If you suffer from tension headaches often: 10 – 15 times a month, it is best to start with this massage twice a week to really feel the difference. Then gradually lessen the frequency as needed.


Trigger points therapy to suboccipital muscles.

Trigger points therapy to suboccipital muscles.

What is the aim of these treatments?

The aims here are:

to reduce muscle tightness in most critical areas

to increase blood circulation into these muscles

to increase waste products elimination from them

to normalize muscle tonicity

to target trigger points

to activate and strengthen the antagonist muscles

to improve the body and posture awareness

30min head neck and shoulders relaxer massage.

Gentle stretches help relieve tension.

Gentle stretches help relieve tension.

This massage is a stress buster! It is also ideal for treatment of tension headache.

To begin with you will take few deep breaths with light pressure over your sternum, to let you concentrate on your breath and to wind down. Then the muscles are warmed up by gentle regular sweeping strokes. Slightly deeper pressure is then applied to soften the tightness in upper trapezius, levator scapulae muscles and pectoralis minor muscles as well as muscles of the shoulder, deltoid, biceps brachii and supraspinatus by shorter focused repeated strokes. Trigger point therapy then really gets to the root of the problem. After that, gentle stretches are applied three times to muscles attaching to the skull and vertebrae of the neck. When the tight muscles are stretched, you will perform very small guided movements with your neck to start activating the deep neck flexor muscles (longus capitis & longus colli). The scalp is then warmed up with tiny brisk sweeps which feels very refreshing. Following this “tension melting” brisk massage, deeper massage of the scalp is given. There are pressure points on the face to nicely round up this lovely, tension and ache relieving treatment. Gentle pull on the hair, very lightly applied, further relaxes the scalp. The massage is finished by soothing strokes over shoulders neck and head.

This treatment, as any other massage treatment, works best when you drink lots of water – at least 2 litres a day, more if you exercise. Enough sleep for effective muscle regeneration is essential, too.

Deep tissue massage, very firm in pressure, or lighter sports massage of the back with the emphasis on neck and shoulders may be done instead. It is good idea to fit one or two of these treatments in between your 30min relaxer massages from time to time, to loosen up the whole back.

Myofascial release

Work on suboccipital muscles

Work on suboccipital muscles

If you prefer a lot firmer pressure, then 30min myofascial release concentrating on neck and shoulders is a treatment of choice for this condition. This is especially so, if the tension has chronically set in and the muscles feel like “rope” or solid as “rock”. The treatment is first done with client sitting. The massage begins by squeezing, lifting off and “separating” the muscles, in order to increase circulation and to start breaking up adhesions. Various other techniques follow: trigger points therapy, skin rolling and very firm petrissage and percussion. Palms, knuckles, thumbs and elbows are used. Soft tissue mobilization using passive motion of the neck and shoulders is added. In “muscle stripping” or active release technique your active guided movements are used, repeating 3-4 times, whilst the steady pressure is applied and held over the muscle or its insertion. The after-effects of this such as muscle tenderness may be felt the next day.

What else might help?

Stay healthier and younger for longer with regular outdoor activities.

Stay healthier and younger for longer with regular outdoor activities.

Prescription or over the counter drugs: analgesics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents, muscle relaxants, and amitriptyline.

Physical therapy, regular exercise and time spent outdoors daily are on the top of the list of other things you can do to prevent and relieve tension headaches. Exercise relieves stress, releases endorphins, improves body awareness. It also stimulates internal organs and has countless other positive effects on your body and mind.

Amongst other things you could do to release stress are guided meditations or taking up a yoga class. Go out to parks and nature as often as you can. Make time for yourself and for self-reflection. Stop scaring and criticizing yourself and start replacing every negative thought with positive encouraging one. Wherever you stand, you are doing great! It will get better and easier over time. Enough sleep is essential and drinking at least 2 litres of water a day. The simplest of things usually work the best!

Start eating 'clean'

Start eating ‘clean’

Eliminating alcohol and stimulants such as coffee and cigarettes to a minimum might help also. Keeping an eye on the amount of refined sugars you consume is a good idea as well. It provides a sudden enormous dose of energy and might make you feel easily agitated, hyperactive or jittery. Notice what foods make you feel what way.

Certain foods might cause some types of headaches, if you have intolerance to them. You can take a simple food intolerance test and try to avoid foods, that come up for you in your test. These foods cause your body to produce antibodies against them and weigh your system down. Sometimes trial and error method might work best for this, simply by trying to avoid one food type for a week to see if there is any positive change.

If you have tried anything that worked for you, don’t hesitate to share.

Copyright 2015 by Anna Gavenciakova


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