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Physiotherapy and Headaches: What Can We Do?

With over 300 types of headaches known to science, there are many possible causes to your head pain. The first step in effectively treating any headache is to correctly identify the type of headache you are experiencing, followed by its root cause. A physiotherapist can help you identify both of these things, and work with you to lay out a range of treatment options and work towards reducing the level and frequency of this pain.


The first level of classification in headaches is to identify whether it is primary or secondary. A primary headache is one where the headache is the issue, and pain is a symptom. A secondary headache is one where the headache is a symptom of an underlying problem, where addressing that problem is necessary to alleviate the pain.

Below this, headaches can be grouped into one of four categories. Tension-headaches are by far the most common, and are caused by tightening muscles in the head, neck, and upper back. Migraines are also common, and are believed to be caused by issues with the central nervous system. Cervicogenic headaches originate from the spine and surrounding muscles and tissues, while all other headaches are classified as “other”.


When you meet with your physiotherapist, you will begin by describing your symptoms. In many cases, this will be enough for the physiotherapist to get a good idea of what the problem is, but you will likely go through a questionnaire and physical examination to ensure that the headache is not misdiagnosed, or caused by multiple factors. It is not uncommon for multiple types of headaches to overlap, so working closely with your physiotherapist is crucial to ensure that it is treated effectively.


How your physiotherapist recommends treating your headache will of course depend on what the root cause is. If there is an underlying cause, such as a central nervous condition, then treatment will focus on that primarily, although medication and other treatments may be used to alleviate the pain in the meantime.

The most common type of headaches are tension-type headaches, which can be treated with a wide variety of options. The first step in all treatments will be to eliminate any detrimental behaviour that could be causing or contributing to your pain. These can include posture, sleeping position or disrupted sleep, posture, and stress.

Your physiotherapist will then lay out a plan to relieve the tension that is causing your pain. The exact treatment used will depend on the severity of your pain, but will include things such as massage therapy, heat therapy, exercise, stretches, and acupressure or acupuncture. Your physiotherapist will monitor your progress closely at the beginning, with a view to working towards lifestyle changes that will significantly reduce the severity and frequency of your pain.

Headaches can be very disruptive to our daily lives, and failing to address the issue will have damaging long-term effects. Reliance on over-the-counter medication will not only reduce their effectiveness in dealing with all types of pain, but could lead to addiction, liver problems, and allow the underlying cause to become more deeply ingrained. If you are experiencing strong or frequent headaches, it is crucial to speak with your physiotherapist and address the issue before it progresses. 

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