Massage and migraines



Headaches and migraines are a common occurrence these days, often related to stress, poor posture, staring at blue light screen all day and a sensitivity to migraine attacks. Sufferers will often resort to medication to get by, but these have side effects of their own, so is there a viable alternative and can massage really help?

What Causes Headaches?

Previously, the medical profession thought that there were two reasons for developing headaches. Firstly, migraines occurred when the blood vessels that supply the brain and muscles of the head were constricted, and tension headaches were caused from tensing the muscles of the head, face and neck when the person was experiencing physical stress.

Research has now shown that there are complex chemicals changes in the brain that are associated with headaches. Various levels of neurochemicals in the brain used to send messages via the nervous system are sensitive and when disrupted by muscle tension, cause the tension headaches. These small chemical changes are not only responsible for creating the pain, but also interfere with the brains ability to suppress the pain.

Types of Headaches: Muscle Tension and Vascular Headaches

The most common types of headaches are muscle tension and vascular headaches.

Muscle tension headaches produce dull, constant pain on both sides of the head and may also involve an aching neck or sensitive scalp. They generally start slowly and can last from hours to days.

Vascular headaches are the ones many people describe as “pounding” or “throbbing.” Vascular headache pain intensifies with physical activity and typically lasts from 4 to 72 hours. It may be associated with other symptoms such as vision problems, extreme sensitivity to light, and nausea.

Migraines, cluster headaches and headaches that result from high blood pressure are all examples of vascular headaches.

Massage Therapy Can Relieve Headaches

As the majority of people suffering with tension headaches and migraines are also suffering with neck pain, tension in the shoulders and stress, many find massage therapy can offer some relief from both the headache and the muscular pains.

Massage therapy relaxes the tense muscles of the head, shoulders and neck, releasing any shortened muscles, relieves any muscle spasms, improves blood flow to the area and promotes relaxation. In this way, it can be effective at reducing the pain from your headache and any related symptoms.

When the muscles are massaged and tension eases, there is less pressure on the nerves and vessels that supply them, and the restricted muscles discussed earlier are freed. Blood then circulates more efficiently, improving circulation, bringing oxygen and much needed nutrients to the area.

Massage therapy not only helps to physically release tension in the muscles, but also seeks to effectively reduce mental stress, anxiety and depression that can sometimes cause headaches, or make them worse.

Taking the time to look after yourself with regular massage treatments can help to reduce and even prevent future headaches by helping to control your stress levels, maintain emotional balance, and by re-connecting the mind and body.

Top 3 Reasons Why Massage May Help Migraines

  • Muscle Spasms or Tension: Massage in the neck and shoulders can help to relax tense bands of tissue, loosening those muscles attached to the base of the skull, which cause pain that travels up through the back of the head and into the eye area.

  • Hormone Regulation: Hormonal chemical changes often trigger migraines. Cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone, can be controlled by massage therapy, which also increases endorphin production (the body’s natural painkillers) as well as stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (the body’s key to releasing stress).

  • Improved Circulation: Massage has been shown to increase blood flow, which in turn improves oxygen levels and can help to reduce pain.

Studies on migraine massage therapy

There are very few studies on massage and migraine, which adhere to the top standards for clinical trial.

However, one small study in 2006 looked at the effectiveness of massage therapy in the treatment of migraines. They randomly assigned the 47 migraine sufferers into two groups, one of which was to receive massage therapy. Those who had massages had no, or fewer migraines and slept better during the weeks they had massages compared to those that didn’t receive any massage therapy.

Types of Massage for Migraine

Not all types of massage are suitable for all headaches or migraine sufferers. For example, because those who suffer with migraines are sensitive to touch, and during an attack movement can increase pain levels, deep tissue massage would be unsuitable and might actually make things worse if the attack has already started.

However, a light hand or foot massage during the period of pain could help. Reflex points found on the hands and feet could help to improve circulation, reduce pressure in head and neck area and promote relaxation, all contributory factors to the headache appearing in the first place.

Here are several different types of massage that might help with headache and migraine pain. These are not intended to replace any medication you may need, but sufferers tend to find these effective in managing the ongoing battle when incorporated into a regular routine.

Deep Tissue Massage Therapy: The name refers to a specific massage technique in which slow strokes, using a deep pressure, are applied to specific areas in the body with muscle tension. It uses a combination of movement, pressure and stretching to ease discomfort and aid relaxation. Not suitable during an attack, but great for treating tense muscles on a regular basis.

Craniosacral Therapy: This type of massage focuses on your skull and scalp. It can soothe the nerve endings and help to alleviate your headaches.

Reflexology: Working on the theory that various zones in the soles of the feet correspond with other areas of the body, known as reflexes. Reflexologists will massage and stimulate those reflexes in the feet to bring relief from pain in the head area. Many migraine sufferers find this helpful, as well as massage of the hands and fingers where reflex points can also be found.

Trigger point Massage: Believed by some practitioners to reduce nerve compression, the therapist targets specific spots within a muscle that are sensitive or painful to touch. The trigger point is where the muscle has held tension for a prolonged period, and prevented the usual flow of nutrients to the muscle. By releasing the tension, the muscle can function normally again, and pain is reduced.

Indian Head Massage: A ten-minute Indian head massage should reduce the severity of headaches. Indian Head Massage has been practised in India for over 1000 years as part of everyday family life. Narendra Mehta brought it to the west in the 1970’s and the therapy was extended to include the face, ears, neck, shoulders and upper arms.

An Indian head massage will focus on applying pressure to the mid back, arms and shoulders, and neck to reduce tension and knots formed in the muscles. Massage around the neck and head encourages circulation of cerebral fluid and reduce headache causing blockages.

Shiatsu massage: a Japanese technique in which pressure is applied with the fingers, thumbs and palm to acupuncture points, also may help to reduce headache pain.

If you do decide to seek massage therapy to aid your wellbeing, remember that it should never take you outside of you comfort zone. Particularly with deep tissue massage, if you feel yourself tensing up, this can be counter -productive to your goal, as we are aiming to relax the muscles, not tense up further.

Don’t be afraid to communicate with your therapist. I often encourage this with my clients, and welcome feedback about the pressure, and ease up or stop altogether if the client is not comfortable. It could also be helpful if you can speak with the massage therapist beforehand, asking if they have experience with treating migraine sufferers.

For some people, massage is not recommended. Those with varicose veins, anyone with a recent sprain or fracture, blood clots, any nerve injuries or recent radiation or chemotherapy are not suitable. Pregnant women should also consult their doctor or midwife before considering a massage, and then find a therapist trained in pregnancy massage.

However, for most people, it is a viable alternative treatment and holistic therapy that could help to reduce the risk of attacks and manage your migraines with little or no medication.

Happiness is … the moment you realise your headache is gone.

Sharon Cole

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