There are several different causes of headaches, some type of headaches can be eased by treatment of the neck, head and surrounding muscles. The International Headache society classified different types of headache into either primary or secondary headaches. Primary headaches are those caused by pain-sensitive structures in the head such as the muscles, ligaments or tissues covering the brain, while secondary headaches are caused by an underlying condition such as infection, injury or tumour.

While the underlying cause of a large majority of headaches is still uncertain, there is growing evidence to support the use of physical or psychological treatments in easing headaches. Lifestyle factors such as stress, work habits, sleeping positions, hydration, posture and exercise behaviours have been closely linked with some forms of headaches and understanding these triggers and modifying behaviours can have a positive impact on reducing the frequency or severity of this pain.

Types of Headaches

It is important to understand what type of headache you are experiencing in order to receive the most appropriate treatment. This is usually done by your GP or a neurologist, but physiotherapists can also diagnose your headache by examining the structures surrounding your head. The two most common types of headaches are cervicogenic (or neck) and tension headaches, which are most commonly caused by mechanical or environmental factors. Other neurological caused headaches such as cluster headaches and migraines are less common and unfortunately their cause is still largely unknown.

Tension headaches: are often associated with a feeling of tightness in the head, neck or jaw, or the sensation of a tight band around the head. These headaches typically affect both sides of the head and are usually described as a dull pain. Stress, poor posture and muscle tension in the back, shoulders or neck can also trigger these headaches. While the underlying cause is still not completely understood, treatment such as massage, stretches, neck mobilisations and relaxation techniques have been found to have a good effect in reduced these symptoms.

Cervicogenic or neck headaches: are caused by underlying neck issues. Problems with the joints, ligaments, nerve roots and muscles in the neck and head can cause pain and headaches if not treated. Typically, these headaches are felt in the neck and back of head regions and are worsened with neck movements, poor posture and prolonged sitting. While the symptoms are similar to tension headaches and migraines, these types of headaches can be easily treated with physiotherapy which aims to restore movement in the neck and relax the surrounding muscles.

Migraines: often associated with severe throbbing or pulsing pain, these headaches are usually accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. Although the cause is still not well understood, it is believed that environmental and genetic factors play a role in the incidence of these headaches with a prevalence of 3:1 in females vs males. Certain foods, stress, some medicatsions and changes in sleeping patterns my trigger migraines for some people and the occurrence is usually managed with medication from a treating doctor.

Cluster headaches: considered one of the most painful, and often associated with intense pain in/behind/or around the eye, these headaches affect around 1 in 1000 Australians and are diagnosed by a doctor. The cause of these headaches is still unclear and there isn’t any clear link between certain behaviours however, it is believed that some foods, odours, medications or alcohol may trigger these headaches

How can Physiotherapy help your headaches?

Physiotherapy management is the most common non-pharmacological treatment for headache. Reduction in the movement of the vertebrae in your neck and tightness in the muscles of you back, neck and shoulders have all been linked to triggering headaches and there are a number of treatment methods which can help alleviate the symptoms of headache. The most common forms of physiotherapy management include:

  • Mobilisation of the cervical vertebrae
  • Exercises and stretches to improve movement and flexibility and train the supporting muscles to ease pain
  • Massage of the surrounding muscles
  • Postural assessment and correction
  • Relaxation strategies
  • Prevention strategies and self-management programs

Important note: While some headaches can be attributed to simple lifestyle factors such as stress or tight muscles, it is important to recognise when a headache might be something more serious and therefore to is recommended to seek medical advice from your GP or physio.

Written by Britt Ridlen – Physiotherapist MPhty. BA(Sp & Ex Mgt.) APAM

If you are suffering from headaches or any other musculo-skeletal complaint, then the staff at Northside Sports Physiotherapy can guide you to recovery.

Call your nearest practice to book in an appointment:
Hornsby – 9476 1666
Wahroonga – 9489 4588
Lindfield – 9489 4588