Headaches and Physical Therapy

headaches and physical therapy

Headaches can be a major cause of disruption to our daily routines whether that be at home, at work, or in a social environment. Headaches can come on without warning and last from minutes to days. There are a variety of different triggers that cause headaches, not to mention an assortment of different types of headaches. Getting more sleep, drinking water, taking medications, and even just laying down in a dark room could certainly be a great treatment. Perhaps you are trying these and they work. Maybe you only receive temporary relief or perhaps you haven’t found any relief at all. This is where physical therapy for headaches can help bridge the gap to get you functioning without limitation!

Types of Headaches

Firstly, let’s discuss the main types of headaches individuals suffer from. Although there are many varieties of headaches, we will discuss 4 main categories. They are cervicogenic, tension, migraine, and cluster headaches.

  • Cervicogenic headaches will typically occur in the back of your head or neck and radiate to the top of your head. It can affect one or both sides of your head or neck. Rarely do they cause nausea, dizziness, or visual changes.
  • Tension headaches will normally affect the forehead/temple region of your head. It often feels like a dull pressure or rigid band around your forehead. These can last from minutes to days.
  • In migraines, people often report moderate to severe throbbing pain that can occur on one or both sides of the head. Migraines can last anywhere from 4-72 hours and have a variable frequency. Oftentimes people will also report nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sound, or smells.
  • Lastly, we have cluster headaches. These come on rapidly while feeling especially sharp and occur behind or around the eye. Clusters typically last 15 minutes to 3 hours. Individuals may get more than 1 headache a day during a cluster period but will have a long period of remission before another onset.

Common Causes

Now that we have identified the main types of headaches, we need to address the multitude of issues that can cause these headaches or similar symptoms. This is not an all-inclusive list, but these are common reasons why individuals might be suffering from reoccurring headaches. They include:

  • Concussions
  • Brain Injuries
  • Whiplash
  • Poor Posture
  • Muscle Tightness/Joint Stiffness
  • Muscle Weakness
  • Sensory Processing Issues
  • Sinus Pressure
  • Clenched Jaw
  • Nutrition Deficiencies
  • Medication Side Effects
  • Lack of Sleep
  • Dehydration
  • Stress

How Physical Therapy for Headaches can Help

So, how can physical therapy help? Our physical therapists will conduct an evaluation where we will perform a detailed evaluation, including a history, to identify possible triggers such as hydration status or medications. We will also perform a global systems review of your body. From there we will conduct a focused physical evaluation, making certain to screen for red flags while also checking your range of motion, muscle strength, muscle endurance, and sensory systems. This will help to determine if there are any underlying factors that may be causing your headaches. Most importantly, our physical therapist will help determine the best course of action based upon your individual findings.

What are red flags? These are symptoms that we look for that may be uncharacteristic of headaches and indicate a different pathology. These include, but are not limited to, abnormal nervous system findings, sudden severe headache with increasing intensity, numbness or tingling, weight loss, fever, malaise, or night pain.

To find out if physical therapy is right for you, call and talk to one of our therapists! And, for additional information on headaches, Mayo Clinic and Stanford Health, are great resources to check out.

  1. May A. (2018). Hints on Diagnosing and Treating Headache. Deutsches Arzteblatt International115(17), 299–308. https://doi.org/10.3238/arztebl.2018.0299
  2. Steiner, T. J., & Fontebasso, M. (2002). Headache. BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.)325(7369), 881–886.