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Headaches Physiotherapy: Symptoms & Treatment

Headaches are a common condition that can significantly impact a person's quality of life. Physiotherapy interventions, including manual therapy, exercise, and education, have been shown to be effective in reducing the frequency and intensity of headaches.

As with all injuries, this information is simply a guide, and it is always best to check in with a Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist to have a personalized assessment and hear recommendations for what you and your body may specifically need.

What is a Headache?

A headache is any pain in the region of the head. It can be in the centre, one side or both sides.

What does a Headache Feel Like?

A headache can feel like a dull ache or throb, or it can feel sharp or vice like.

Headaches can come on slowly or quickly. They can be of short duration, lasting only an hour or so or they can last several days. They can range from annoying to completely debilitating.

How is a Headache Diagnosed?

Often, a headache is something you self determine and manage on your own at home

If your headaches become frequent or debilitating, you should check in with your doctor or other healthcare professional. A thorough history about your headaches will be a necessary first step. You will need to describe your and what they feel like as well as how often they happen and how long they last. You will also need to indicate how severe they are and if there are any specific triggers. Your healthcare provider may also want to know how much caffeine you drink and what your stress and sleep habits are like.

After taking your history, your physician will perform some physical and neurological testing to look for signs that an illness may be causing the headache. These signs include: fever, infection, numbness/tingling, weakness, high blood pressure, dizziness, balance issues, visual concerns, confusion, seizures or loss of consciousness.

Generally, scans such as x-rays, MRIs or CT scans are not necessary to diagnose a headache, unless your doctor wants to look for another underlying problem or condition that may be contributing to your headaches.

How Can Physiotherapy Help with a Headache?

Your Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist will start with a thorough history, asking questions and listening to your story to find any patterns that exist or possible reasons for your headaches. They can make recommendations of things to explore with your doctor or other practitioners that may be able to help work on some other causes of the headaches with you.  They will then observe your postures, movement and function as well as feel how all the small joints in your neck work together and how much tension exists in the muscles in this area.  They will determine what they feel may be some causes of your headaches that can be addressed. Tension is one of the most common reasons. Tension can be created by long periods of inactivity, looking at screens, eye stress and fatigue and poor posture.  Unfortunately, many people work in jobs that include all of these factors for 8 hours a day.  

Reduction of Symptoms

Treatment should be focused on providing short term symptom relief as well as removing the long term causes. In the short term, your Physiotherapist, Athletic Therapist or Massage Therapist can provide manual therapy to release tight muscles and joints.

Headache Prevention

For lasting relief and prevention, your Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist can also help you with lifestyle adjustments and exercise prescription that will help correct posture, joint movement and soft tissue tension as well as add postural strength to support the body and the head. The underlying problem will have to be addressed in order to alleviate the pain and prevent the headaches from returning.

If you suffer from constant headaches and have tried many typical fixes without results, it may be time to be assessed by a Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist for musculoskeletal reasons for your headaches. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, you can try to have a look at the following ideas for addressing the cause of your headaches:

  • Drinking enough water – Most people do not drink enough! You need about 20ml per lb of body weight and only water and herbal teas count! Sugary or high caffeine drinks work against your water intake. The average female needs about 2.5 to 3L and the average male needs 3.5 to 4L a day of water.
  • Get enough sleep and keep your time to sleep and time to wake similar each day
  • Assess and fix your posture in work or daily activities
  • Get an eye exam
  • Adjust anything else in your lifestyle that you feel could be contributing

If you have already tried these things or think that tension or your neck may be to blame, then Physiotherapy, Athletic Therapy or Massage Therapy may be the answer. We are here to help you get back to active, uninterrupted lifestyle.

Increase Mobility to Allow for Better Alignment and Posture

Your Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist can do manual therapy to ensure the joints of your neck and upper back are moving well in order to allow you to be in better alignment and posture and avoid the pulling and tension that can sometimes cause headaches.

Strengthening Exercises to Promote Better Alignment and Posture

Exercises can be prescribed by your Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist to help you strengthen your postural muscles to allow you to stand and sit with better positioning to avoid unwanted stress on your neck and head, leading to headaches.

What are the Best Exercises to help with a Headache?

Neck Stretching - Sides of Neck (Upper Traps and Scalenes)

Neck Stretching - Levator Scapula on an Angle

Neck Stretching - SCM on Front of Neck

Postural Activation

Deep Neck Flexors Activation

How Can you Prevent Headaches?

The best way to prevent headaches is to avoid some of the common headache triggers. You can also monitor yourself for your specific headache triggers and avoid them.

Here are some common headache triggers to avoid:

  • Medication overuse
  • Poor or not enough sleep
  • Skipping meals or eating junk food
  • Caffeine

Here are some other headache prevention ideas:

  • Exercise or move your body regularly
  • Manage or reduce your stress by avoiding taking on too much and trying stress reduction activities such as walking in nature or deep breathing exercises.

What is the Fastest Way to get Rid of a Headache?

The fastest way to get relief from your headache is to figure out what is causing it. Then you can address the cause and get the fastest relief. While over the counter pain medication may be necessary on occasion, it can do more harm than good and long term reliance on it can reduce it’s effectiveness and stress your liver. If there are reasons related to musculoskeletal or functional issues in the body, Physiotherapy, Athletic Therapy or Massage Therapy may be able to help you address them and find a more permanent solution to your headaches.

If you are unsure of the cause, here are some general things to try to try to get relief as quickly as possible:

  • Dim the lights around you
  • Lay or sit in a relaxed position
  • Massage your scalp, face and neck
  • Do some gentle neck stretches
  • Do some deep breathing and meditation to calm your mind and relieve your stress
  • Try a hot pack or cold pack for 10-15 minutes every hour
  • Avoid chewing as these muscles can be tight and cause headaches
  • Drink lots of water in case your headache is caused by dehydration
  • Sometimes a little bit of caffeine can actually help a headache
  • Consult your doctor about possibly taking some medication in moderation

Contact Us For Help

Inertia Physio+ offers Kanata and Stittsville exceptional Physiotherapy, Athletic Therapy and Registered Massage Therapy with private treatment rooms, one on one care, a maximum of two patients per hour and treatment focused on the evidence-based practices of manual and exercise therapy. Don’t suffer any longer.  If you have pain or injury, our Kanata and Stittsville Physiotherapy, Athletic Therapy, and Registered Massage Therapy team is here to help you get back to living pain-free life and activities.  Please reach out to us at (613) 672-2200 or for an appointment today! You are also welcome to book online. We also offer direct billing on Physiotherapy and Massage Therapy services whenever your plan allows.


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