Everyone suffers from a headache every now and again. But when headaches become chronic, and disrupt daily activities, the typical home treatment of a few ibuprofen pills isn’t exactly adequate anymore.
Chronic headaches are one of the most common reasons that patients visit their primary care providers. The most common type of headache is a primary headache, attributable to a single cause inside the head; migraine, cluster, and tension headaches fall into this category. However, a significant percentage of chronic headaches are actually secondary headaches, caused by factors in other parts of the body. For example, cervicogenic headaches can be caused by a musculoskeletal issue within the neck, shoulders, or upper back, or any number of other issues elsewhere in the body.
Regardless of the cause, though, everyone with chronic headaches has the same primary goal: Make the pain stop so they can go back to enjoying life. Headache treatments run the gamut from medication to surgery and everything in between, but there is a growing trend of treating headaches with physical therapy as well, especially secondary headaches caused by musculoskeletal disorders.
In fact, physical therapy may be the only effective treatment for chronic musculoskeletal-related headaches, which may not ever diminish until they are treated with therapy.
Physical Therapy and Headaches
The key to successfully treating any condition is to determine the underlying cause of the condition. Therefore, when patients visit their doctors complaining of frequent headaches, the first order of businesses is generally to determine the cause of the pain. If the cause of the pain is determined to be from the neck, back, or shoulders, physical therapy may be a part of the overall treatment plan.
For most people, physical therapy for headaches and pain is highly effective, and one of the fastest treatment options for chronic headaches. Relief can be found within a single visit for some patients, and usually after a few weeks of work, the therapy is effective for reducing headache days and solving issues with motion and strength. That’s not to say that it will work for everyone, as there are some who have not found relief, but for the vast majority of patients with secondary headaches, PT is an effective option.
Still, the first task is to find the root of the problem. Typically, the most common musculoskeletal problems that can cause headaches include:
- Posture issues
- Spinal alignment problems
- Muscle spasms in the face, neck, or back
- Poor joint mobility
- Muscle tension
During the initial consultation, the therapist will most likely analyze your posture, gait, and range of motion in an attempt to determine the location of the problem and the best exercises to alleviate the problem. For example, if the problem stems from a spasm in a muscle of the face or neck, exercises that lengthen and mobilize that specific muscle can reduce the pain.
Physical therapy may also include manual manipulation of the head and neck to decrease the pain and improve the range of motion in the head and neck. Together, both exercise and manual therapy generally requires two to three visits per week for up to 12 weeks in order to see the maximum benefit.
Is It Time for a New Approach?
Many people think of physical therapy as something required to recover from an injury or surgery, such as re-learning to walk after joint replacement. They don’t typically think of it as a treatment for headaches.
However, if you suffer from chronic headaches, you should consider it as a viable, drug-free option — even if you have already tried other approaches. In fact, there are some telltale signs that it may be time to give PT a try for relieving your headaches.
- Signs of a cervicogenic headache, including:
- Neck pain
- Muscle tenderness
- Tenderness over the joints in the neck
- Shoulder/arm pain on the same side as the headache
- In some cases, dizziness, nausea, and lightheadedness are signs of this type of headache
- Decreased range of motion in the head and neck
- Increase in symptoms when you move your head and neck
- Decrease in effectiveness of medication
- Headaches that cannot be attributed to any other cause, such as illness or allergy
- Headaches that occur 15 days or more per month, but that are not migraines, tension headaches, or another type of headache
If any of these symptoms apply, it may be time to try a new approach to treating your headaches.
Chronic headaches can disrupt your life in addition to being painful. If you have already tried multiple treatment options without success, or you have not yet discovered the cause of your pain and discomfort, physical therapy may be the answer to your issues. In fact, physical therapy may be able to help you get the answers you have been looking for, and get the relief that you so desperately need.