What can help my headache?

Headaches. Let's face it pretty much everyone has one at some point in their life. But what can osteopaths do to help those of us who suffer frequent headaches? Let's take a look at the different types of headaches commonly see in clinic, and how osteopathy can offer relief for them:

Tension Type Headaches

Tension type headaches are the most common headaches seen in adults, reported to affect around 45% of the population. They're often described as a dull pain, a tightness or a pressure around the forehead or at the back of your skull extending down to the neck. Patients often describe the pain as a "band around the head".

Tension type headaches are more commonly seen in women than men, and can either be episodic (occurring less than 15 times a month), or chronic (occurring more than 15 times a month for at least six months).

The exact cause of tension type headaches is still not fully understood however there are known triggers, including, but not limited to:

• Stress and anxiety
• Dehydration 
• Poor posture
• Tiredness
• Squinting
• Blood sugar fluctuations
• Lack of physical activity
• Bright sunlight
• Noise
• Certain smells

Osteopathy can not only help to reduce pain for tension type headaches but can also play a part in helping to improving stress levels, decreasing tension and reduce anxiety, all which are significant triggers of tension type headaches. As well as our classic hands-on treatments such as soft tissue therapy and mobilisations, we use exercise prescription, mobilisations, positional release and trigger point therapy to help overcome your pain. 

Cervicogenic Headaches

The next style of headache we commonly see are called "Cervicogenic headaches" which are persistent headaches caused by problems in the neck referring pain to the head. This can include the joints, muscles, nerves and blood vessels in the neck.

Cervicogenic headache sufferers will often have altered neck posture and a reduced range of motion in the neck. The head pain is made worse by movement of the neck, particularly looking upwards, and when pressure is applied into the structures of the neck. Some people may also experience discomfort at the base of the skull, neck and shoulder regions, rather than a headache alone.

Symptoms can include:

• Constant, steady pain on one side of your head or face
• An attack of pain that can last for hours or days
• Stiff neck and reduced range of movement
• Pain at the top of your neck
• Pain aggravated by neck movements

These headaches respond well to treatment that looks to improve the function of the neck, but that also improves how the body works. The key is to work out what the underlying cause of the headache is, for example, neck arthritic change occurring.

Massage techniques and myofascial release techniques are beneficial to relieve pain when combined with neck mobilisation to improve the range of movement you have. Often, techniques such as acupuncture can help to relieve some of the pain. It's very important to address any muscle imbalances that may be occurring between the front and back of the neck, and also in the shoulders, so exercises and stretching play a large part in helping people to feel better.


Migraines can be utterly debilitating. They commonly affect around 15-20% of women and 5-10% men and are reported to be the most common cause of episodic headaches. Migraines usually occur before the age of 40 and cause not only headaches, but a whole raft of other symptoms such as sensitivity to light, sound or movement and sometimes cause nausea and vomiting too.

Migraines are as individual as the sufferer, and intensity varies from person to person, but usually results in the inability to carry out daily activity during an episode. Similarly, the frequency of attacks differs from an occasional inconvenience to frequent headaches, severely impacting quality of life.

Symptoms often include:

• Pain on one or both sides of your head
• Pain that feels throbbing or pulsing
• Sensitivity to light, sounds, strong smells and sometimes touch
• Nausea and sometimes vomiting
• Light-headedness
• Visual disturbances including seeing flashing lights, zig-zag patterns or blind spots
• Numbness or tingling sensation in the hands, face, tongue and lips
• Dizziness

When should you seek medical attention?

  • If the headache comes on suddenly and is unlike anything you have experienced previously.
  • If the headaches are accompanied by a stiff neck, fever, nausea, vomiting & confusion.
  • If the headache occurred following an accident, especially if it involved a blow to your head.
  • If the headaches are accompanied by weakness or pins and needles in the face, numbness or slurred speech.
  • If the headaches are causing significant dizziness, fainting or visual changes.

Manual therapy can be a useful tool for migraine sufferers. Combining massage, stretching and joint mobilisation techniques helps to improve the function of sufferers' neck and upper back, and reduce muscle tension. Exercises for mobility can help flexibility, and treatments such as acupuncture and myofascial release can also be used to aid this. Treatments are definitely not a replacement for any prescribed medication but should be used to complement treatment from your doctor.

As you can see, headaches can cause significant discomfort, but don't necessarily have to be a significant problem. With a little detective work to get to the root cause of pain, treatment is often quick and effective. If you'd like to know more about how we can help your headaches, don't hesitate to get in touch with us.
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