woman suffering from a headache

The Role of Physical Therapy in the Treatment of Headaches

By Rebecca Roberts, PT, DPT

A 2015 study found that over 14% of US adults have had a migraine or severe headache within the past 3 months, with rates as high as 23.5% in women ages 18-44.1 Severe headaches and migraines can cause decreased participation at home and in the community in addition to lost wages due to absenteeism at work. In some severe cases headaches and migraines can even lead to disability. Severe headaches and migraines can be very difficult to treat, with many people seeking provider after provider to get some relief.

There are many different types and causes for headaches including:

Tension type headaches – often Cervicogenic in nature, meaning caused by dysfunction of the muscles, bones, or joints in the neck, shoulders, and base of the skull. Frequently worsened by stress.


Other – there are many other causes for headaches, including trauma, sinus problems, medication overuse, vascular problems, tumors, and more.

Many people who have frequent headaches suffer in silence as they do not know there are treatments that can help decrease the frequency and severity of headaches.

How can Physical Therapy help?

Your Physical Therapist (PT) will perform an evaluation of your head, neck, shoulders, and upper back looking for dysfunction in posture, strength, muscle length, muscle tension, and range of motion that may be contributing to your pain. Your PT will also evaluate your movement to determine if your headaches appear mechanical or non-mechanical in nature, and refer your to another provider if PT is not appropriate. Your PT will then develop a customized treatment plan, targeted to address any dysfunction found during your evaluation. Most treatment plans consist of a mix of exercises, postural adjustments, patient education, stress reduction, and manual therapy to address impairments that contribute to the severity and frequency of your headaches.

Do you suffer from frequent headaches? Whether your headaches are severe or mild, frequent or infrequent, physical therapy treatment for headaches may be right for you. Please contact our office to schedule an appointment to see how physical therapy can help you.

Burch, R. C., Loder, S. , Loder, E. and Smitherman, T. A. (2015), The Prevalence and Burden of Migraine and Severe Headache in the United States: Updated Statistics From Government Health Surveillance Studies. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 55: 21-34. doi:10.1111/head.12482

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