Physical Therapy For Headaches

Headache is one of the most common ailments experienced by people across the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around half of all adults experience one or more cases of headache at least once every year. It’s estimated that there are at least 300 different kinds of headaches, with only around 10% of them linked to any definitive cause.

It’s observed that people, in general, tend to consider headaches as ordinary issues that can be treated at home with the use of over-the-counter painkillers. Of late, however, there is also a growing trend where many are avoiding medications as far as possible and instead choosing an alternative or online physical therapy for headache relief. However, we do need to bear in mind that not all headaches are the same, and a treatment that works on one kind of headache, may not be suitable for another kind.

Understanding Headaches

Any sensation of pain that is felt around the face, skull, or upper neck can be grossly termed as headache. Thus, a case of headache can be caused by something as minor as a tiny bruise on the skin, to anything as severe as terminal brain cancer. Headaches are known to reduce an individual sufferer’s quality of life and also cause a significant decline in workplace productivity at organizations. Studies have also shown observable links between headaches and mental disorders like anxiety and depression. Data from across the world also indicates that incidents of headaches are reported more commonly by females compared to males across the world. Age, lifestyle choices, environmental factors, specific diseases, heredity conditions, medication situation, and occupation stress levels also tend to have a significant correlation with headache prevalence.

The most renowned global organization working exclusively in the field of headache is the International Headache Society (IHS), whose classifications, categorizations, and recommendations is taken as the benchmark for diagnosis and treatment of headaches across the world. Depending upon the nature and the severity of the pain, physicians advise different treatment regimes for patients as per the standards set by IHS or specific national governing bodies.

Categorization of headaches

The IHS categorizes headaches broadly into two distinct groups based on the causes of the pain, which include Primary Headaches and Secondary Headaches. Basically, Primary Headaches can be understood as the kind of headaches unrelated to any disease or structural issue in the body, with the pain not considered to be physiologically harmful to the body, although it can cause regular pain and a lot of discomfort to the patient.

On the other hand, Secondary Headaches include sensations of pain caused by some underlying condition or disease, such as an internal injury or infection. Some Secondary Headaches can also indicate other warning signs in the body and therefore may require further specialized check-ups and scans.

Five most commonly reported headache conditions

Around 70% of headache reports by patients in the US are diagnosed as Primary Headaches with Tension-type headache (TTH) listed as the single most common issue reported by 60–80% of patients, followed by Migraine, which is reported by around 15%. Other less frequently observed Primary Headache conditions include Idiopathic Stabbing (around 2% cases), Exertional Headaches (around 1% cases), and Cluster Headache (around 1 in every 1000 cases).

Let’s look at the major characteristics of the top 5 most common headaches:

I. Tension-type Headache (TTH)

Tension-type headaches (TTH) are termed as recurrent episodes of headache, that can last anywhere between minutes to weeks. TTH is characterized by a mild to moderate bilateral sensation of pressing or tightening around the head. Some cases also involve heightened sensitivity towards light or sounds. The exact cause of TTH is often unknown, although it is generally assumed to be caused by some kind of mental or muscular tension. Common painkillers and physical therapy are among the most used treatment for TTH in patients.

II. Migraine

Migraine is termed as a moderate to severe headache felt as a throbbing or pulsating pain on one part of the head that can last between several hours to several days. The condition is sometimes accompanied by a feeling of sickness and heightened sensitivity to light or sound. On average, migraine affects three times more women than men and usually begins around early adulthood.

There are three most commonly reported migraine conditions which include migraine without aura (which comes with some warning signs before the start of the pain episode), migraines without aura (which doesn’t have any specific warning sign before the start of the pain episode), and migraine aura without headache (which has other signs and symptoms of a typical migraine attack but doesn’t lead to a headache). The recurrence rates of migraine episodes varies across patients, with some experiencing it several times a week, while others experiencing it once in several years.

While migraine isn’t considered to be entirely treatable, there are several medicinal, and non-medicinal options that can be used for dealing with migraine. Rest, painkillers and physical therapy is often used as treatments to cope with the effects and lessen the duration of migraine episodes.

III. Sinus Headache

Sinus headaches are termed as headaches that occur in and around the nasal region primarily characterized by a feeling of infection or inflammation around the sinuses and may include throbbing of the head. The condition can lead to a feeling of pressure around the nose, eyes, and cheeks. However, the same symptoms are also diagnosed as migraines in many patients. On the other hand, some Sinus Headaches can also be a sign of impending chronic sinusitis or serious infections in other parts of the head. So, it’s important to get oneself properly checked by a physician, before determining the proper treatment.

A variety of treatments, ranging from natural treatments and clinical drugs to physical therapy and acupuncture is used to treat Sinus Headache.

IV. Cluster Headache

Cluster Headache is considered to be one of the most painful varieties of headache characterized by agonizing recurrent headaches centered on one side of the head usually near the eyes. Additional symptoms include eye watering, nasal congestion, or swelling around the eye on the affected side, which usually lasts between 15 minutes to 3 hours.

The exact cause of cluster headaches is still a mystery, but physicians suggest a variety of heavy medications to deal with it during attacks. Some forms of exercise and physical therapy have been suggested for helping patients to better cope with cluster headaches.

V. Medication-overuse headache (MOH)

MOH is considered to be the most common form of secondary headache disorder. It’s caused by heavy and longtime use of medication to treat headaches. Some MOH can be persistent and even disturb sleep routines.

The treatment of MOH needs a carefully outlined strategy that needs to be approved by the physician and may require several methods to be used together, including medication replacement, exercises, natural medicines, and physical therapy.

Physical Therapy for treating headache

Depending upon the exact cause of the headache, physical therapy is often employed as a complementary or supportive treatment to the main treatment regime as directed by the physician. It’s also considered to be one of the means of reducing heavy dependence on medication and increasing tolerance capacity towards pain. Expert-supervised physical therapy is considered to generally yield net-positive outcomes for headache patients. There are specific physical therapy procedures for treating specific types of headaches. To treat some conditions, onsite therapy sessions with specialist equipment are recommended, while for others supervised home-based online physical therapy for headaches is recommended.

Considering that the nature and pain level of headaches can differ from one patient to another, an expert physical therapist often builds a custom treatment plan that would suit the symptoms and expectations of the patient. An erroneous physical therapy treatment plan may even make the pain worse, so it’s advisable to always seek services from an expert physical therapist, whether by contacting a dedicated physical therapy facility or an expert providing specialized online physical therapy for headaches.