Will Masage Therapy Help My Headache?

"Massage That Migraine Away!"

Will a Massage Alleviate My Headache?. Robert Daly/OJO Images/Getty Images

When you last saw your headache doctor for an appointment, did she recommend massage therapy? If so, this is not that surprising. Massage is becoming an increasingly common treatment for patients with pain disorders like lower back pain, shoulder pain, fibromyalgia and headaches. Most studies on massage therapy are small, but beneficial effects have been demonstrated in some.

What is Massage Therapy?

Massage is an ancient technique, dating back thousands of years ago to China, India and Egypt.

While classically performed by a hands-on therapist, massage can also be administered mechanically.

There are different types of massage therapy – the most common one being the Swedish-massage. In this type of massage, your therapist will use long strokes, kneading, deep circular movements, vibration and tapping of your muscles to release tension and increase circulation.

Craniosacral therapy is another type of massage therapy. It has been examined mostly for its role in treating tension-type headaches. The notion behind this therapy is that the rhythm of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) – which bathes your brain and spinal cord – can become restricted in certain individuals, causing headaches. In craniosacral therapy, gentle pressure is applied to different spots on an individual's skull, alleviating this restriction and allowing the CSF to flow freely.

What are the Benefits of Massage?

  • Massage decreases stress levels, a common headache trigger in tension-type headaches and migraines. Physiologically, this is supported by the decrease in blood cortisol levels seen in patients undergoing massage. Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands – which helps control your body's blood pressure and stress levels
  • Massage also activates the "pain gate mechanism." In this theory, nerves from an injured or inflamed muscle or tissue release pain messages that travel to the spinal cord. These pain messages encounter "nerve gates" in the spinal cord. Massage stimulates receptors in the skin that block or "close the gates," preventing pain signals from reaching the brain.
  • Massage therapy also promotes deep relaxation by increasing blood flow to your heart and inflamed tissues, and reducing muscle tone and tension.
  • More vigorous massage stimulates the natural release of endogenous – internal – opiates in the body. So sometimes the slight discomfort of a massage will in the end help suppress or lower the intensity of your head pain.

Will Massage Alleviate My Headaches?

Potentially. Right now, there are too few studies to say one way or the other. But there are a couple supportive ones.

In one study in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 47 individuals suffering from migraines were randomized to undergo massage weekly for five weeks versus no massage. Those who underwent massage – compared to the controls – experienced a decreased number of migraines and improved sleep patterns during the testing period and during follow-up three weeks later. They also had a reduction in their salivary cortisol levels, heart rate and anxiety level, when compared to the control group.

Another study found that massage may be more beneficial than acupuncture for migraine headaches. Both massage and acupuncture were equally effective in treating tension-type headaches.

Finally, in patients with migraine, applied cervical and upper thoracic massage and manipulation techniques were found to be beneficial in reducing pain intensity (Younes, Vatankhah, & Baradaran.).

The Bottom Line

There is not a lot of evidence on the benefits of massage for treating headache. That being said, there are small studies that do support its use, which is encouraging. Moreover, just as your headache disorder is unique to you, so is your treatment. Sometimes it's trial and error before finding the treatment regimen that is right for you.


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