I’ve had headaches all my life, but lately they seem to be getting worse. Over-the-counter medication used to help, but now all they do is slightly dull the pain. I’m afraid to take anything any stronger, and I’m tired of treating the symptoms. Could massage therapy help relieve my headaches?
Everybody has occasional headaches, and typically you can identify the trigger. But if you have more than two headaches a week, and over-the-counter medication isn’t relieving your pain, it may be time to see a doctor.[i] While massage may provide some relief, you don’t want to use massage as a substitute for proper medical treatment.
Headaches can be caused by stress, and massage is proven to help reduce the negative effects of stress on your body – effects which can include headaches. Massage decreases levels of cortisol in your body, also called the “stress hormone.” It also increases levels of dopamine and serotonin, two feel-good hormones that also promote relaxation and can lead to fewer headaches.[ii]
It’s important to keep in mind that few studies have been done of massage’s effects on headaches. The preliminary studies that have been done are somewhat promising that massage may offer some relief for chronic headaches.[iii]
A basic relaxation massage – also called a Swedish massage – may help your headaches by relaxing your body and mind and improving your circulation. Swedish massages are gentle and good for beginners. Monitor your headaches for a few days after your massage and see if you notice any improvement, but keep in mind you may need a series of several massages before you can tell a significant difference.
If you have tension headaches, some massage therapists recommend deep tissue massage that targets your suboccipital muscles – the muscles just under the back of your skull. These muscles keep your head balanced on top of your spine, and if they have to work overtime, you may end up with tension headaches.[iv] Deep tissue massage uses trigger point therapy to diagnose and treat muscles that are knotted and overly tense, which may be causing your headaches.
If you’re new to massage, it may be best to start with a Swedish massage before moving to deep tissue massage. You can talk to your massage therapist about your headaches and see what they recommend. They may be able to provide you with additional techniques that you can use on your own.
To make massage therapy easier for you – as well as avoid potential headache triggers – call in a certified massage therapist to come to you. That way you can control the time and place of your massage so you’re comfortable with your surroundings. That can help ensure you get the most out of your treatment. While you may notice results after even one massage, the therapy will typically work best for you when you include it as a regular part of your health care regimen. Particularly if you’re getting deep tissue massage, you might consider rebooking with the same therapist each time to ensure continuity of treatment with a therapist who is familiar with your particular condition.
[i] The Mayo Clinic: “Chronic Daily Headaches” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chronic-daily-headaches/symptoms-causes/syc-20370891
[ii] International Journal of Neuroscience: “Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16162447
[iii] National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Massage Therapy for Health Purposes” https://nccih.nih.gov/health/massage/massageintroduction.htm
[iv] Pain Science: “Massage Therapy for Tension Headaches” https://www.painscience.com/articles/spot-01-suboccipitals.php
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