Massage Therapy in the Treatment of Chronic Headaches

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Twenty-five million North Americans suffer from chronic migraine headaches, and millions of others suffer from daily tension and cluster headaches. Headaches are one of the many chronic illnesses registered massage therapists around the world help treat every day.

A chronic illness is defined as a long-lasting condition that is usually not curable, but can be controlled through medication, self-management, or environmental changes. Along with a prescribed dose of conventional medication, doctors of patients with chronic conditions like headaches, arthritis, and diabetes may also suggest supplementary massage therapy. MT is increasingly recognized as an effective therapeutic approach to managing pain, reducing the symptoms of serious disease, and improving patient quality of life.

Migraine Headaches

Migraine headaches typical affect women over the age of 20. This chronic condition is characterized by crippling, persistent throbbing (typically on one side of the head) paired with a hyper-sensitivity to light and noise. Migraines can last from several hours to several days, making them seriously debilitating in some cases. Migraines are sometimes accompanied by a neuro-psychological event called an “aura” which often precedes a migraine attack. Estrogen and hormone fluctuation has been shown to be a major cause of why women experience migraines more commonly than men.

While not everyone in the general population experiences the same level of discomfort felt by migraine sufferers, other types of headache can be just as crippling. Tension headaches are particularly common, and are characterized by the feeling of a band squeezing ever tighter around the head. The tension headache is often a result of stress or incorrect posture, both of which tighten the muscles in the neck and face. Cluster headaches, though less common, can be just as painful for sufferers. They invoke a sharp pain behind the eyes which can occur several times a day, often as a result of increased blood flow to the brain.

Massage Therapy for Headaches

Massage therapy has been found to reduce migraines and other types of headaches, ease sleeplessness, and decrease the stress associated with living with this chronic condition. Massage therapy improves circulation in the body, and relieves musculoskeletal pain by targeting areas of tension. Massage therapy has also been known to regulate hormones by decreasing the level of cortisol (a stress hormone) in the body while also releasing endorphins. Therapeutic massage programs train students in Swedish massage and Hydrotherapy which are both common MT treatments for migraine headaches.

Back, neck and face muscles are all involved in the onset of a tension headache, because of “trigger points” within these muscles. Trigger points, commonly perceived as knots in a muscle, are irritated areas of soft tissue that when compressed are tender and when active may refer pain to other areas. When a person is stressed, or sits for long periods of time with bad posture, trigger points can occur in their neck muscles, causing pain to travel up to the temples, resulting in a tension headache. Treatments taught in massage therapy school such as trigger point release, craniosacral therapy and myofascial release are all trusted as effective methods for targeting the trigger points most often responsible for chronic headaches.

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