Headache and Massage

Massage Therapy

A natural aid to headache treatment

Massage therapy offers two important benefits to tension headache sufferers:

  • it can help relieve actual headache pain,
  • and it does help prevent headaches by reducing tension and improving circulation

How does it work?

Massage works by increasing oxygen and blood flow to tense muscles. During a tension headache, muscles of the scalp, jaw and neck are tightly contracted. The blood vessels supplying oxygen to these muscles are constricted, so that the muscles must work with an inadequate supply of nutrients. It is believed that this combination of muscle spasm and inadequate blood supply is the main cause of pain in tension headaches. Massage helps relax the contracted muscles.

Why does it happen?

Tension type headaches are often triggered by stress or just the anticipation of a stressful experience. Massage can help overcome your body’s response to stress. With the right pushing, pulling and manipulation of your tense muscles, you may begin to feel stress slipping away. You can consider using massage whenever you are feeling especially tense or anxious, or you may want to have massages on a regular basis, such as once or twice a month. Link


Twenty-six adults with migraine headaches were randomly assigned to a wait-list control group or to a massage therapy group, who received two 30-minute massages per week for five consecutive weeks.

The massage therapy subjects reported:

  • fewer distress symptoms,
  • less pain,
  • more headache free days,
  • fewer sleep disturbances, and
  • they showed an increase in serotonin levels
(Hernandez-Reif, M., Dieter J., Field, T., Swerdlow, B., & Diego, M. (1998). Migraine headaches are reduced by massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 96, 1-11.)


This study investigated the effects of massage therapy on headache activity of individuals with tension-type headache using a placebo controlled design. Participants received either six sessions of medium pressure massage or light pressure (placebo) massage or no treatment (headache-recording control).

Results indicated massage was associated with:

  • a moderate decrease in headache activity regardless of whether the massage involved the manual manipulation of soft tissues
(Montalva, R. The Effects of Massage Therapy on Tension-Type Headaches: A Placebo Controlled Trial. Psychology, November 2006 (109 pp.))


Study on  21 female patients suffering from chronic tension headache received 10 sessions of upper body massage consisting of deep tissue techniques in addition to softer techniques in the beginning. When found, trigger points were carefully and forcefully massaged.

  • The range of motion in all directions increased and,
  • The number of days with neck pain decreased significantly
Confirms clinical and physiological effects of massage and headaches in reducing pain and occurrence of headaches
(Puustjarvi, K., Airaksinen, O., Pontinen, P.J. The Effects of Massage in Patients with Chronic Tension Headache. Acupunct. Electrother. Res., 15 (2): 159-62; 1990.)