3 Ways Physical Therapy is an Effective Headache Treatment Option

woman holding head in pain

By Monica Mai

Therapydia Beaverton


Headaches occur as a result in changes in chemical activity in your brain. These changes can be caused by a variety of reasons and conditions. There are two major categories of headaches included in this article today, these are based on the source of pain and how physical therapists can administer headache treatments to get you back to feeling pain free. 

Primary headaches

These types of headaches are stand-alone and not the result of another medical condition.

Tension headaches (most common)

Symptoms: This is the most common type of headache. Stress and muscle tension are contributing factors. Symptoms have a slow onset, usually pain is on both sides of head, pain may be at the front, sides, and back of head and neck. The pain is often described as a band-like, dull, or pressing.

Treatment: Often treated with over the counter relievers, along with good sleep, relaxation techniques, or regular exercises 

Migraine headache (second most common)

Symptoms: This type is often associated with intense throbbing pain, nausea and/or vomiting, and light sensitivity. The                       dominant pain frequently shifts sides. Both emotional and physical stress can be triggers. 

Treatment: Treatment will depend on frequency and severity. Most migraines that are mild and infrequent may be managed with over the counter medication, however severe migraines may need further medical intervention 

Cluster Headaches (rare)

Symptoms: This type of headache is recognized by sudden-onset of severe pain behind one eye. The occurrence is in groups, multiple times a day and sometimes daily. These headaches can be triggered by heat, bright light, use of alcohol or tobacco. 

Treatment: Lifestyle change, prescription medication

Secondary headaches

These types of headaches are caused by underlying disease or condition. 

Cervicogenic headaches (most commonly treated by PT) 

Symptoms: This type of headache stems from the cervical spine (neck) and radiates into different areas (back, front, or sides) of the head. Symptoms may increase with prolonged positions such as reading, computer work, etc

Treatment: Soft tissue mobilization (trigger point, myofascial release), joint mobilizations

Other Causes

Infected teeth, sinus infection, high blood pressure, grinding teeth, concussions, medication overuse, stress, lack of sleep, weather changes, etc. 

Physical therapy can treat headaches that are caused by musculoskeletal changes such as limited neck range of motion, muscle tension, joint or disc pathology, poor posture. 

When should I see a PT for my headaches?

Physical therapy is commonly prescribed for those who are experiencing headaches. You can start seeing a physical therapist at any time. A physical therapist will complete a comprehensive musculoskeletal evaluation to determine wherever or not you are a good candidate for treatment. The exam includes the assessment of neck range of motion, joint mobility, soft tissue tenderness and restrictions, muscle strength and weaknesses, etc. Other health care providers may be involved in long term management such as pain, ortho, or neuro specialists.


3 ways a PT may provide headache treatment 


No two patients are the same, treatment will vary. Headaches may be caused by something unique to the individual such as post motor vehicle accident, work office ergonomics, chronic poor posture, etc. 

Manual Treatment

Research has shown that hands-on technique can alleviate joint and muscle stiffness. Additional interventions may include, but are not limited to: soft tissue mobilization, stretching, postural strengthening exercises. With an evaluation and appropriate manual treatment from your physical therapy, you can expect to see a change in your symptoms.


There are hundreds of exercises out there for stretching and strengthening. Your PT will be able to help you identify and narrow down effective exercises you can do regularly to manage your headaches. 


Contact Therapydia today, we’ll help set you up with a consult to talk to a therapist and see if we’re the right fit! 


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