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The Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists


Causes Of Headaches

In many cases people put headaches down to the stress and strains of everyday life but in fact the exact pathophysiology of migraines, tension headaches and other benign recurring headaches is unclear; it is also now known that migraines are not caused by changes in blood circulation within the brain.

But experts do agree that a portion of headaches (cervicogenic and tension headaches) are triggered by a dysfunction in the upper neck and thoracic spine.

Types Of Headaches

According to the International Headache society there are over 300 types of headaches described – from migraines to chewing gum headaches. With tension headaches and migraines being most common it’s helpful to know the difference.

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are felt as mild to moderate pain on both sides of your head, maybe widespread and feel like a tight or pressing band. Not usually associated with nausea or aggravated by physical activity AND are often brought on by emotional stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue and poor postures.


Migraines are felt often as a throbbing moderate to severely disabling pain on one side of the head, but can alternate sides within and between an attack; The hallmark features of migraine include extra sensory symptoms such as nausea and/or vomiting, sensitivity to noise, light and occasionally smells. Approximately 20 % experience an aura (visual disturbances) and other neurological symptoms as one-sided arm tingling or weakness or even vertigo.


Physical treatment or physiotherapy may not always be the first thing people consider for a headache. However, physiotherapy treatment can produce some great results especially, where medication and other treatment has failed. On top of this, there is growing clinical evidence that patients that have a neck component to their headache type can often do quite well with physiotherapy regardless of the precise diagnosis.

A range of manual therapy techniques, particularly specific and targeted joint mobilisations can be used to restore movement at symptomatic joints and help maintain good posture of the upper spine. This can have a desensitising effect on the nervous system at a spinal segmental level and help reduce the likelihood of a headache being triggered.

A physiotherapist can also advise extensively on other potential headache triggers such as postural habits and loading, pain-behaviour, diet and sleep hygiene to name but a few. So if you are suffering from benign recurring headaches that are drastically interfering with your life, why not consider physiotherapy as a drug free alternative to greatly improving your quality of life.

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