Physical Therapy Treatment of Headaches
by JD Fields, DPT
AZOPT Goodyear Physical Therapist

despair-1235582_1280Most of us have experienced a headache at some point in our lives.  We also know a person who suffers from chronic headaches that affect many aspects of their day.  This is a very common condition that can be present for numerous reasons, serious and mild.  There are multiple modes of treatment available for chronic headaches.  However, despite the ability to positively affect a person, physical therapy is NOT one that is regularly thought of as a main treatment.  Many people do not know or have little understanding of how physical therapy helps reduce the severity, lessens the quantity or eliminates the headaches completely!

There are three main classifications of headaches: migraine, tension, and cluster headaches. Within these main classifications there are numerous sub classifications and causes contributing to the symptoms. Physical therapy focuses on the “cervicogenic” impairments that play a role in causing or exacerbating headaches, especially tension headaches and migraines.  In other words, physical therapy treats the musculoskeletal problems including the soft tissues and joints of the head, neck, jaw, shoulders, and mid back to affect the headache symptoms. While physical therapy does not change why people get cluster or migraine headaches, these “cervicogenic” factors usually play important roles in the intensity and the frequency of headaches.  Yes, even in migraine headaches, where many rely exclusively on medication for treatment, there is usually some muscular/joint involvement that physical therapy can positively change.

At AZOPT, our physical therapists utilize multiple interventions including regular exercise and manual therapy techniques to treat headaches.   Regular exercise has been shown to have positive benefits on many types of headaches, including migraines.  Physical therapy can help start an exercise program. This may include introduction to cardiovascular and specific postural exercises, as well as developing an individualized plan that will allow you to control headache symptoms independently. Addressing the movement of the joints in your neck and jaw, your posture, and the face, neck, and shoulder musculature have also been shown to decrease frequency and intensity of headaches.  Physical therapists will utilize hands on techniques such as joint mobilizations, soft tissue mobilization, joint manipulation, dry needling, and other individualized practices to attempt to change your symptoms. A combination of these modalities will be individually administered to meet your specific needs in reducing headaches.

In rare occasions, headaches can also be a sign of more serious concerns.  Medical attention is needed if you experience a new onset of headaches, frequent headaches or significant increase in the intensity of your headaches. A physical therapist will perform a full assessment of your symptoms prior to treatment to ensure you are appropriate for physical therapy, and then to help develop an individualized plan to improve your symptoms.  Whether this is a new problem or a longstanding issue, come see us at AZOPT and give physical therapy a try for headache treatment.