Headaches are one of the most commonly experienced types of pain in the human body and they can have many different causes. While an occasional headache may not trouble you, other than being an inconvenience for a few hours, reoccurring headaches and migraines can be debilitating.

If headaches or migraines are affecting your quality of life in any way, it’s important that you don’t suffer in silence – you may have treatment options that you haven’t explored. Osteopathy, for example, can help you find out what type of headache you have, assist you in your management of them, and help address reoccurring issues that are caused by joint or muscle problems in the neck.

How osteopathy can help a headache

Research shows that a combination of manual therapy, such as osteopathy, combined with appropriate exercise can significantly help the long-term control of tension-type headaches.

Osteopathy, in particular, concentrates on the musculoskeletal components of reoccurring headaches. This might mean looking for underlying structural issues that could be causing problems such as the contraction of muscles in the neck, shoulders, spine, base of the skull, or jaw.

Osteopathic techniques such as manipulation of the neck and upper spine joints, gentle soft tissue massage, lymphatic drainage, acupuncture, and specific exercises can all be helpful.

An added bonus is that osteopathy can be used in conjunction with other treatment approaches, and can help to reduce the amount of painkillers you need to take to manage your symptoms. For example, migraines can be exacerbated by stress and tension – therefore, by addressing these within the upper body, osteopathic treatment can become part of a management strategy to help reduce the number or intensity of attacks.

Headache frequently asked questions

As I’ve mentioned above, there are many reasons that people suffer from headaches. The majority of headaches are referred to as ‘tension’ headaches, often caused by the contraction of muscles in the neck, shoulders, head or jaw. Headaches can also be caused by over-using certain medications, stress, poor posture, fatigue, long hours in front of the PC, cradling the phone against your neck, and even exercise. Migraine headaches – which are typically concentrated on one side of the head and associated with sensitivity to sound, light and smells, nausea and vomiting – can be triggered by hormonal changes, oral contraceptives, specific foods, alcohol, and stress. Migraines also seem to run in families.

Osteopathy can be used to treat headaches that have an underlying musculoskeletal cause, such as clenching or misalignment of the temporomandibular joint in the jaw (TMJ) or neck pain caused by cradling the phone at work. Stress and tension are recognised in migraine management and osteopathy is a useful strategy for addressing these.

During your initial consultation, I’ll ask you a lot of questions about your headaches, including the location and nature of the pain, any patterns or clear triggers, the severity and duration. I will also want to explore whether there are specific movements or activities that aggravate your headaches. Your answers will help me to identify the type of headaches you’re experiencing and whether osteopathy would be an appropriate treatment. If osteopathy is unlikely to help, I’ll let you know during your initial appointment. On the flipside, if I believe it could make a positive difference, I will explain why and how so that you feel fully informed.

Osteopathy looks at the body as a whole – headaches are often a symptom of musculoskeletal problems in the neck, shoulders, jaw or base of the skull. Tension headaches tend to have localised symptoms – an all-over the head pain that feels like there’s a tight band around your skull – whereas migraines and cluster headaches go hand in hand with other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, and/or a pain in one eye.

When you come to see me for osteopathic treatment for headaches, I will give you advice that you can use at home to help manage your symptoms. Headaches can sometimes be improved by lifestyle changes, such as drinking more water, getting more sleep, adopting a healthier diet, and reducing how much you drink or smoke.

One of my roles as an osteopath is to support you to be able to manage and improve your headaches so that you can carry on with your normal activities, including work and your favourite activities.

Whether or not your headaches continue to reoccur in the future will depend on your individual case and the causes of the pain. If I feel that there is something you can change within your current lifestyle to prevent more headaches, I will certainly discuss this with you.

In 2010, the Chiropractic & Osteopathy Journal published a paper entitled, Effectiveness of manual therapies: the UK evidence report. This found that spinal manipulation and mobilisation is an effective treatment for migraines and ‘cervicogenic’ headaches, i.e. headaches originating from the spine or other anatomical structures in the neck, such as the nerves or muscles. To qualify, an osteopath must study for four to five years for an undergraduate degree – a similar length of time to a medical degree – but will spend more time focusing on human anatomy and musculoskeletal medicine. This means that osteopaths are ideally placed to support recovery from headaches that have a structural cause.

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