We all know the therapeutic benefits of a relaxing treatment, but as well as reducing stress levels, can you use massage for headache and migraine relief?
According to Sally Chamness, massage therapist and owner of Phoenix Health and Wellness (opens in new tab), headaches can be the symptom of many different things, from dehydration to hormone imbalances, and from tension to more serious neurological conditions.
“Massage can be a great source of relief for stress and tension headaches,” she says. “The most common areas that cause headaches are tension in the jaw, temples, neck or shoulders.”
Want the really good news? When you can’t get to a massage therapist, you can do one yourself at home. Head massages in particular have also been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve circulation and support hair growth, so read on to find out how it all works.
And if you're also suffering from stubborn knots or muscle soreness, check out out guide to the best massage guns for a self-massage tool you can use at home.
Can you use massage for headache relief?
So how does massage for headache relief work? Chamness says that it can ease the tension in the muscles of the neck and head. “Constant stress can cause these muscles to stay in a contracted state, leading to pain and injury,” she says. “By encouraging relaxation of these muscles, we can ease the pain and radiating aches caused by the tension.”
Whether you have a tension headache, a cluster headache - severe pain on one side of the head, often around the eye - or a migraine, generally slow, firm and relaxing techniques are most beneficial, says Chamness
“This is because when you have a headache, light, more stimulating actions will increase the pain or cause irritation.”
A study published in the Journal of Headache and Pain (opens in new tab) revealed that massage therapy had a significant effect on pain intensity, reducing it by 71%. Another study in the American Journal of Public Health (opens in new tab) found massage to be effective in treating chronic tension headaches.
What are the benefits of a head massage?
When it comes to headaches, massage can be a great way to relieve them without medication, says Chamness. But there are lots of other benefits of a head massage too.
Relaxing the muscles of the head, neck and face allows better circulation to the head, says Chamness. “This helps to soothe the person experiencing the headache, and even though techniques are focused on the head, it can benefit the whole body.”
She also says that the relaxing effect of a head massage helps the whole body to relax, increasing levels of the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, while reducing cortisol levels - our stress hormones.
“When muscles are connected to the face, neck and scalp, they can cause a tightening of the tissues, which can cause pain and discomfort, leading to headaches,” says Chamness. “By massaging the muscles around the temples, jaw and neck we can relax them and prevent pulling and tugging.”
As well as having a direct impact on muscle tension, massage to the head, she says, when performed slowly and firmly, can trigger relaxation and stress relief. The parasympathetic nervous system then kicks in and it calms us down.
In contrast, a light, faster paced massage to the head can be very stimulating. “It can increase blood flow to the scalp and hair follicles to improve hair growth,” says Chamness. “It even helps to stimulate the brain - great for those getting tired from studying.”
In fact, a small 2016 study (opens in new tab) found that participants had thicker hair after 24 weeks of daily scalp massages.
Reduce blood pressure
Massage could even help to protect against high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and other chronic illnesses. This is partly because having a massage can help to calm the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight or flight response when the body thinks we are in danger or a stressful situation.
“The release of endorphins during massage allows the blood vessels in the body to relax and this reduces pressure within the blood vessels and arteries, lowering the intensity or stress on the heart and slowing heart rate,” explains Chamness.
While research is fairly limited, a study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science (opens in new tab) found that both 15 and 25-minute head massages could decrease blood pressure in female participants.
How to give yourself a head massage
For tension headaches: Place your fingers flat against your temples and slowly move them in a circular fashion.
For cluster headaches: Pinching the bridge of your nose and slowly along the eyebrow line helps to reduce tension around the eyes and sinuses.
For stress-induced headaches: Circular movements with your fingertips from the cheekbone down towards your jaw can ease off the tension from feeling stressed and clenching your teeth.”
As for migraines, Chamness says that migraines tend to be caused by a chemical or hormonal imbalance in the body, so self-massage wouldn’t necessarily aid with the condition itself. It can, however, help to reduce the stress and tension in the body from experiencing a migraine.