East Bay Massage: Migraines and Headaches

One of the most common complaints I hear from clients is their frustration with neck pain and related headaches. If you suffer from migraines, tension headaches, or even occasional headaches without a clear trigger, you understand how frustrating it can be when they won’t go away.

Headaches can feel mysterious and inexplicable– what causes them? when will it go away? why are some so debilitating? Here’s a basic over view of the different kinds of headaches, and how bodywork and Craniosacral Therapy (CST) can help.

Migraines are the biggest and baddest of the bunch. If you’ve ever had one, you know! Apart from the severe pain they can cause, oftentimes in an arc stemming from the base of the skull and around the ear to settle behind one of the eyes, migraines can cause confusing symptoms. Light sensitivity, sound sensitivity, nausea, and even a metallic taste in the mouth are all common symptoms associated with migraines. Some even experience visual distortions or an eerie sense of disconnection with reality (commonly referred to “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome”). Children occasionally will experience  migraines not as a pain in the head, but as a stomach ache which in later years surfaces as a traditional migraine.

Migraines occur when blood vessels in the brain become dilated (vasodilation)– typically due to the sympathetic nervous system’s stress response (fight or flight), food allergies, or some other chemical reaction. They occur when the body is under stress, whether the stressor is known to the sufferer or not, frustratingly. Tracking one’s diet can help to identify if there is a food allergy trigger.

Migraines are often treated with medication, sometimes to of little avail. Bodywork can serve an important role in decreasing the frequency of migraines and help the sufferer cope with the discomfort.

Tension Headaches are perhaps the most common type of headache. They too can start at the base of the skull and spread in an arc around the head. They typically occur when there is muscle tension in the cervical spine or neck area. This can be due to a number of factors– if cervical vertebrae are out of alignment, nerve conductivity can be compromised or pinched. The muscles surrounding the vertebrae can become accustomed to supporting the neck in misalignment and may need to be encouraged to relax to allow the spine to find its balance again. Muscle tension is contagious– once the neck is tight, the scalp often responds in kind, expanding the area of contraction around the skull. Secondly, stress can encourage certain postures in the body– raised shoulders, shoulders that rotate forward, neck tension, or a furrowed brow are all common physical postures of stress. Amazingly, it is possible to assume these postures so frequently that they become the way we exist on our bodies, over time. Improving posture can go a long way in helping to reduce tension headaches.

Combination Headaches are fittingly a combination of these two kinds of headache. Muscular tension can result as a complication of the discomfort associated with vasodilation in the brain. If a sufferer is prone to these headaches, (s)he knows that typically the tension headache kicks it all off, and the migraines seems to develop in response to the pain.

How can bodywork help with headaches?

I have found a combination of techniques to be most effective in helping clients cope with headaches and even decreasing the frequency with which headaches occur. Massaging the upper shoulders, neck, scalp, and face helps these muscles which are in contraction to let go. Physically addressing any knots or impingements helps to free these muscles up, but the oxytocin produced during massage also soothes the body into relaxation. Relaxation is therapeutic! Stretching muscles which are overtaxed due to stress-posturing goes a long way, too.

CST plays a key role in helping relieve migraine or headache symptoms. I suspect that vasodilation and muscle tension can both contribute to compression of the cranial bones and tax the brain’s membranes. Helping the occipital base (the back of the neck where it meets with the skull) to regain mobility, as well as the temporal bones (the ones at the sides of the head where the ears are) can have near-magical effects. It has been my experience that CST is an important component to managing headaches and migraines. Sometimes, simply allowing the time and space for therapeutic relaxation has surprising healing effects.

Thank you for visiting East Bay Massage!

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