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Woman with fingers on forehead, in pain from a headache

Headaches affect 47% of the global population and are described by the type and location of pain in the head. Many headaches are harmless and resolve gradually. However, more frequent moderate to severe headaches can impact your ability to do daily activities and quality of life. 

Different types of headaches include:

  • Tension.
  • Cervicogenic or neck muscle-related.
  • Migraine.
  • Secondary headaches from an underlying condition, such as fever, infectious disease, sinus disorder, or in rare cases, a tumor or more serious illness.
  • Unspecified headaches.

A physical therapist will perform a clinical examination to diagnose the type of headache and develop an effective treatment plan.

Physical therapy has been proven to:

  • Decrease or resolve the intensity, frequency, and duration of headaches.
  • Decrease medication use.
  • Improve function and mobility.
  • Improve ease of motion in the neck.
  • Improve quality of life.

A physical therapist treatment plan for headaches may include:

1. Manual therapy

Proven hands-on techniques are designed to alleviate joint and muscle stiffness, increase mobility of the head and neck, decrease muscle tension and spasms, and improve muscle performance. Some physical therapists also provide dry needling for certain types of headaches.

2. Exercise

Research has shown that various types of specific exercises will decrease pain, improve endurance, decrease inflammation, and promote overall healing. In addition to individualized prescribed exercises, customized home-exercise programs are an essential part of the treatment plan.

3. Education

Educational strategies have been found helpful at lessening severity and/or frequency of headaches. These strategies include identifying highly individualized triggers (ie, dietary, sleep, movement/postural habits, stressors, hydration). Effective strategies to alleviate symptoms also include a wide variety of relaxation techniques.

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Blanpied PR, Gross AR, Elliott JM, et al. Neck pain: revision 2017. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2017;47(7):A1–A83. Free Article.

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