massage for tension headaches

How Massage Therapy Can Help Solve Tension Headaches 

For many people, a tension headache acts something like a “check engine” light: it’s your body telling you that something is off balance, and you should stop and pay attention.  

Anything that puts extra strain on the muscles of the neck, back, shoulders, and face can be the culprit. Not enough sleep, too much caffeine, grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw, dehydration; all these things can cause stress in your body and contribute to a tension headache.  

Massage on its own can be effective treatment for relieving the cause and symptoms of tension headaches. By both addressing the stressors and emotional issues causing the headaches and by targeting tense muscles and joints, massage by a great Registered Massage Therapist may help you kick your tension headaches to the curb for good. 

I get headaches all the time. Are they tension headaches?  

While only your physician can officially diagnose the type of headache that’s plaguing you, a good look at your activities and habits and the symptoms of your headache can narrow it down. A tension headache usually presents the following symptoms: 

  •       The sensation of tightness around your head 
  •       Mild to moderate pain 
  •       Pressure in the forehead, sides of the head, or back of the head 
  •       Tender shoulder and neck muscles 
  •       Tender scalp 

Tension headaches are a very common type of headache. They fall into two categories: chronic or episodic. If you suffer from tension headaches for 15 or more days each month for at least three months, you are likely to be suffering from chronic tension headaches. Episodic tension headaches are less frequent and tend to last for a shorter time (anywhere from half an hour to a full week). Regardless of the length of time, tension headaches are no fun!  

There are some symptoms that could indicate a more severe condition. If you experience any of these, contact your doctor right away: 

  • The headache comes on quickly and is severe 
  • The headache is paired with a stiff neck, mental fogginess or confusion, double vision, fever, seizures, weakness or numbness or slurred speech. 
  • The headache starts after a head injury and gets worse rather than better over time 

Why do we get tension headaches? 

There’s no single cause of tension headaches, and what triggers this kind of pain varies from person to person. However, the most common causes include physical and emotional stress and postural dysfunction. 

Can massage therapy help? 

By increasing blood flow and soothing inflamed tissue, massage therapy can be just as effective as pain-relieving drugs to reduce and eliminate muscle tension, neck pain, headache pain and of course, the symptoms of a tension headache. Unlike popping a pill, which only temporarily stops the discomfort, massage therapy can address the root physiological cause. An RMT will be able to offer a few different options for your massage treatments. 

A qualified RMT has been trained in an accredited program that has covered massage therapy in depth. This includes identification of muscle groups, fascia, pressure points, joints and more. They know how to create a personalized treatment for you, based on your symptoms, sensitivities, and health history. They can also teach you ways to prevent or treat your headache symptoms at home, such as stretches and self-massage techniques. 

How does an RMT treat tension headaches? 

Relaxation massage 

Relaxation massage doesn’t get the respect it deserves. A good relaxation massage is a treat; it feels so good, it’s easy to forget that it is also therapeutic. In fact, nothing beats a tension headache like a relaxation massage!  

Relaxation massage, sometimes called Swedish massage, is very effective for reducing tension headache symptoms because of the way it affects the parasympathetic nervous system and balances the levels of key hormones. Massage therapy boosts your levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin (one of the reasons why you feel relaxed and sleepy during and after a massage!). Massage also reduces the level of cortisol in your body. Since cortisol (a stress hormone) is a major contributor to tension headaches, this can make a huge difference for your symptoms.  

Deep tissue massage 

Your RMT can use specialized deep tissue massage techniques to treat the muscles of your upper back, neck, head, and face—the trapezius and suboccipital muscles in particular. For many people, these two muscle groups are the ones that hold onto the brunt of the tension in their body. The suboccipitals are the muscles that create that feeling of having a tight band around your head during a tension headache. Reducing tension and adhesions in these muscles can go a long way towards solving your headache woes. 

Facial Massage 

Most RMTs will incorporate a facial massage into a tension headache treatment. Their main target will be the masseter muscle on either side of your jaw. The masseters connect your jaw to your cheekbones—they are the ones you flex when you clench your jaw. They’re powerful; in fact, by weight, the masseters are the strongest muscles in the body.  

These are often the first muscles to tighten up and trigger a headache. Masseters become (and remain) tense because of teeth grinding (bruxism), conscious tensing of the jaw, temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJD), or during periods of sleep apnea. For some sufferers, releasing the tension in these muscles will be enough to chase a tension headache away.  

When massaging your face, your RMT will apply very gentle pressure and use small, precise strokes. The muscles of the face are small and close to the surface, so it doesn’t take much to have a huge impact. 

Trigger Point Release 

Trigger points are tight, painful adhesions within your muscles and fascia. They are very tender to the touch, and often create what’s called “referred pain”—pain that shows up elsewhere along the muscle. Activating a trigger point can cause tingling, prickling, burning, numbness, and even cause the muscle to twitch.  

If you’re suffering from headaches caused by tension in your shoulders, neck, head, and face, there’s a good chance you’ve got trigger points in at least a few of those muscles and would benefit from a trigger point treatment. 

Trigger point therapy is a technique that your RMT will incorporate into your therapeutic massage treatment as they go. When they locate a trigger point, they will apply a combination of techniques and massage strokes to deactivate it. If you’ve never had trigger point work done, you’ll be amazed by the immediate relief it can offer. But be warned: trigger point therapy can be uncomfortable and even painful while it’s happening, and may cause some short-term soreness.  

If you’re suffering from tension headaches, why don’t you give massage therapy a try by visiting one of our student clinics in Edmonton and Calgary? Each appointment includes an assessment, a 60-minute massage from one of our talented and qualified students, and a short homecare consultation—all for only $35. Book online today!