Migraine Headaches and Massage

Migraine Headaches and Massage
February 8, 2012 No Comments » Managing Common Conditions Brian Fulton

Rather than describe this condition myself, I am going to let the Mayo Clinic describe it, after which I will tell you what massage can do for you. If you are a migraine sufferer, I highly recommend the Mayo Clinic’s Migraine Page as a resource for you in this matter.


“Although much about the cause of migraines isn’t understood, genetics and environmental factors seem to both play a role.

Migraines may be caused by changes in the brainstem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve, a major pain pathway. Imbalances in brain chemicals, including serotonin — which helps regulate pain in your nervous system — also may be involved.

Serotonin levels drop during migraine attacks. This may trigger your trigeminal system to release substances called neuropeptides, which travel to your brain’s outer covering (meninges). The result is headache pain.

Migraine headache triggers
Whatever the exact mechanism of the headaches, a number of things may trigger them. Common migraine triggers include:

  • Hormonal changes in women. Fluctuations in estrogen seem to trigger headaches in many women with known migraines. Women with a history of migraines often report headaches immediately before or during their periods, when they have a major drop in estrogen. Others have an increased tendency to develop migraines during pregnancy or menopause. Hormonal medications — such as oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy — also may worsen migraines, though some women find it’s beneficial to take them.
  • Foods. Some migraines appear to be triggered by certain foods. Common offenders include alcohol, especially beer and red wine; aged cheeses; chocolate; aspartame; overuse of caffeine; monosodium glutamate — a key ingredient in some Asian foods; salty foods; and processed foods. Skipping meals or fasting also can trigger migraine attacks.
  • Stress. Stress at work or home can instigate migraines.
  • Sensory stimuli. Bright lights and sun glare can induce migraines, as can loud sounds. Unusual smells — including pleasant scents, such as perfume, and unpleasant odors, such as paint thinner and secondhand smoke — can also trigger migraines.
  • Changes in wake-sleep pattern. Either missing sleep or getting too much sleep may serve as a trigger for migraines in some individuals, as can jet lag.
  • Physical factors. Intense physical exertion, including sexual activity, may provoke migraines.
  • Changes in the environment. A change of weather or barometric pressure can prompt a migraine.
  • Medications. Certain medications can aggravate migraines, especially oral contraceptives and vasodilators, such as nitroglycerin.”


So as you can see, the list of triggers is long. The best way to manage conditions such as this is by keeping track of your triggers by logging your daily activities and by keeping a food journal. You need to identify your personal triggers and then make adjustment to your lifestyle to avoid them whenever possible.

Many studies have shown that detecting and removing the foods can improve or even eliminate symptoms. Reducing salt intake and avoiding acid forming foods (meat, dairy, cereals, grain, fried foods and bread) can make a huge difference. Avoiding sugar has also proven beneficial to headache sufferers.

CoQ10, Rosemary essential oil, and ginger tea can be effective headache reducers. Exercise, massage and deep breathing will also improve blood circulation and calm the pain.

Massage, needless to say is not a panacea, but it can help in several key areas. Massage acts on our muscular system, as well as our nervous system. Massage helps calm the sympathetic nervous system, which is our “fight or flight” system, and boosts our parasymathetic nervous system, which is our “rest and digest” system. Calming the nervous system is primary to minimizing vasodilation of blood vessels involved with migraine. Massage also removes or minimizes myofascial  trigger points. Trigger points located in the neck, shoulder and base of the skull (suboccipital muscles) all contribute to headaches. While these muscles typically cause “tension” headaches, every migraine also has a tension component to it, it you want to minimize that component to help reduce the intensity of the headache. We may also often work your mouth (TMJ) muscles if it is determined that this is also contributing to the headache.

We will also probably work on your feet during your massage. The ancient art of reflexology is often used to relieve stress and pain. For some headache sufferers, it’s a godsend. It works on the idea that there are zones in the feet that correspond to all areas of the body. We massage and apply acupressure to these zones, affecting the corresponding area in your body.

Does any research support the use of massage therapy as a treatment for migraines?
Yes, here is some research that has been performed in this area.
  • 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.
  • Researchers found that massage directly over the Greater Occipital Nerve reduced the intensity of migraine headaches for persons experiencing real-time migraines. – Piovesan, et al. Massaging Over the Greater Occipital Nerve Reduces the Intensity of Migraine Headaches. Arq Neuropsiquiatr 2007;65(3-A):599-604.
  • The University of Minnesota reports that massage therapy can be even more beneficial than acupuncture for migraines. Researchers proposed three reasons why that might be:
    • improved sleep
    • reduced stress levels
    • and more relaxed muscles among the participants.
Relaxed Muscles

When your neck and shoulder muscles become tight, this can lead to a migraine outbreak. Massage therapy offers a way to help relax these muscles, according to Vanderbilt University. Deep-tissue massage focuses on the layers of muscles deep under the skin. Trigger-point massage can release the knots in the muscle that those who suffer migraines complain of having. According to the National Institute of Massotherapy, going for regular massage therapy can help your body relax, which can help relieve spasms and tightness that cause pain and lead to migraines. Massage can also stimulate the release of endorphins, which are natural pain relievers found in the body

Better Sleep

Improving sleep quality can decrease the frequency of migraines, according to the University of Minnesota. Massage therapy helps work out tight points and relax your entire body. Such therapy, according to Stanford Hospital and Clinics, helps release muscle tension, promote relaxation and alleviate pain to promote better sleep.

Reduced Stress

Stress can be a big trigger for migraines. Massage therapy can reduce your stress levels, thus reducing the number and severity of your migraines. A 2006 study by S.P. Lawler and L.D. Cameron showed that massage therapy lessened perceived stress and improved the ability to cope of migraine sufferers. The study also noted that the heart rate is reduced with massage, which helps keep you relaxed. Massage therapy tends to relax the recipient, helping them remain calm even after the session has ended.

About The Author
Brian Fulton Brian Fulton has been a Massage Therapist in Ontario Canada since 1999. His approach toward health and the human body is broad and holistic in nature. Brian is also the author of The Placebo Effect in Manual Therapy: Improving Clinical Outcomes (available on Amazon)