Treating Headaches

Did you know there are many different types of headaches?  And did you know most of these headaches can be treated by a trained physical therapist? There are five main types of headaches that can be differentiated by factors such as length/duration of symptoms, location of the headache, and other associated symptoms. Let’s dive in and learn about each type of headache, and which ones a physical therapist can help you with.

  1. Tension Headache – the most common type of headache. It is estimated that 80-90% of the population will suffer from a tension headache at some point in their lives. These headaches typically last as short as 30-minutes and as long as 7-days. They are generated from muscle tightness and/or spasms. Symptoms include a tight feeling, mild to moderate intensity and can be on both sides of the head, or can switch sides. A physical therapist can assess to find the underlying causes of these headaches, address posture, muscle tightness and weakness to decrease pain and lower risk of future reoccurrences.


  1. Cervicogenic Headache – these headaches are caused by a joint in the neck causing irritation to surrounding nerves. They will last greater than 2-hours in duration. Pain is usually present at the base of the skull and can wrap up and around to the forehead. Pain is described as moderate to severe intensity and can be made worse by moving the neck or resting in certain neck positions. As with tension headaches, physical therapists are experts in diagnosing the underlying problem and correcting posture and strength as needed.


  1. Migraine – the seventh highest cause for disability worldwide. These headaches are classified by having at least one of the following symptoms: sensitivity to light, sensitivity to sound, nausea and/or vomiting; and at least two of the following: only one sided, pulsating, moderate to severe intensity, and causes a person to avoid activities secondary to pain. These headaches typically last 4-72 hours. They are believed to be vascular in origin (constriction and dilation of blood vessels), but can also be caused from a tension headache, therefore physical therapy can be appropriate in addressing migraines as well!


  1. Cluster Headache – a rare headache affecting less than 1% of the population and are more common in men. There is no known cause for cluster headaches. These headaches are the most painful form of headaches and will often awake people in the middle of the night. They occur with clock-like regularity during a 24-hour period and cluster periods follow seasons of the year. Pain is normally located around the eye and described as sharp, penetrating and burning. It is usually associated with watery eyes, nasal congestion, eyelid drooping, facial sweating and paleness. Due to no known cause of these headaches, it is uncertain if physical therapy will help with these headaches.


  1. Secondary Headache – these headaches occur due to other factors, including medications, caffeine withdrawal, or dehydration.

Headaches do not need to be a normal part of life. If you are experiencing a headache, and not sure which type it is, you may schedule a complimentary, 15-minute consultation at any of our clinics to be evaluated by a trained physical therapist who will help you determine if physical therapy is right for you!

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Leah Adams, DPT