PHYSICAL THERAPY CAN HELP HEADACHES

By Ann R. Miller, PT, DPT, ATC, CKTP
Clinical Director, Stowe (Pottstown)

Headache pain is the third most common pain complaint worldwide. Some people suffer from the occasional headache, but others suffer from daily, chronic headaches which can be disabling, interfere with one’s ability to work and result in decreased quality of life. Headaches are not only painful but can limit your ability to concentrate, read and think. For some headache sufferers, just getting out of bed in the mornings is challenging.

Headaches can be caused by a variety of conditions including sinus and vascular issues, tumors, stress and musculoskeletal issues such as abnormal muscle tension and tightness, poor posture, cervical disc pathology, limited neck mobility and jaw (TMJ) disorders.

Physical therapy is very effective in treating headaches of musculoskeletal origin. A physical therapist is uniquely qualified in determining the source of your headache and developing an appropriate, individualized treatment program. The physical therapist will conduct a comprehensive evaluation to assess which structures are contributing to your symptoms. The exam will assess your posture, range of motion in your neck, shoulders and jaw, soft tissue and musculature tightness/tenderness, and muscle strength/endurance. The therapist will ask you questions about sleeping postures, teeth clenching (bruxism), work duties and workstation set up, hobbies and stress and anxiety levels in your life.

Treatment will include education about improving posture and work station ergonomics and recommendations to reduce and manage stress levels. Manual therapy techniques will be utilized including joint mobilization and soft tissue techniques to increase mobility in the neck, reduce soft tissue tightness, facilitate relaxation and relieve pain. Exercises will be prescribed to improve flexibility and strength. Modalities such as the use of heat, cold, electrical stimulation, ultrasound, mechanical traction and the application of Kinesio tape are also helpful in reducing and managing headache pain.

The physical therapist will treat you in the clinic for a period of time until your symptoms are either resolved or become manageable. You will be given a comprehensive home exercise program and the education and skills to manage and prevent your headaches from returning. However, just like our automobile needs a periodic “tune up” returning to see your physical therapist is sometimes necessary.
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