Background: Non-invasive physical treatments are often used to treat common types of chronic/recurrent headache.
Objectives: To quantify and compare the magnitude of short- and long-term effects of non-invasive physical treatments for chronic/recurrent headaches.
Search strategy: We searched the following databases from their inception to November 2002: MEDLINE, EMBASE, BIOSIS, CINAHL, Science Citation Index, Dissertation Abstracts, CENTRAL, and the Specialised Register of the Cochrane Pain, Palliative Care and Supportive Care review group. Selected complementary medicine reference systems were searched as well. We also performed citation tracking and hand searching of potentially relevant journals.
Selection criteria: We included randomized and quasi-randomized controlled trials comparing non-invasive physical treatments for chronic/recurrent headaches to any type of control.
Data collection and analysis: Two independent reviewers abstracted trial information and scored trials for methodological quality. Outcomes data were standardized into percentage point and effect size scores wherever possible. The strength of the evidence of effectiveness was assessed using pre-specified rules.
Main results: Twenty-two studies with a total of 2628 patients (age 12 to 78 years) met the inclusion criteria. Five types of headache were studied: migraine, tension-type, cervicogenic, a mix of migraine and tension-type, and post-traumatic headache. Ten studies had methodological quality scores of 50 or more (out of a possible 100 points), but many limitations were identified. We were unable to pool data because of study heterogeneity. For the prophylactic treatment of migraine headache, there is evidence that spinal manipulation may be an effective treatment option with a short-term effect similar to that of a commonly used, effective drug (amitriptyline). Other possible treatment options with weaker evidence of effectiveness are pulsating electromagnetic fields and a combination of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation [TENS] and electrical neurotransmitter modulation. For the prophylactic treatment of chronic tension-type headache, amitriptyline is more effective than spinal manipulation during treatment. However, spinal manipulation is superior in the short term after cessation of both treatments. Other possible treatment options with weaker evidence of effectiveness are therapeutic touch; cranial electrotherapy; a combination of TENS and electrical neurotransmitter modulation; and a regimen of auto-massage, TENS, and stretching. For episodic tension-type headache, there is evidence that adding spinal manipulation to massage is not effective. For the prophylactic treatment of cervicogenic headache, there is evidence that both neck exercise (low-intensity endurance training) and spinal manipulation are effective in the short and long term when compared to no treatment. There is also evidence that spinal manipulation is effective in the short term when compared to massage or placebo spinal manipulation, and weaker evidence when compared to spinal mobilization. There is weaker evidence that spinal mobilization is more effective in the short term than cold packs in the treatment of post-traumatic headache.
Reviewers' conclusions: A few non-invasive physical treatments may be effective as prophylactic treatments for chronic/recurrent headaches. Based on trial results, these treatments appear to be associated with little risk of serious adverse effects. The clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of non-invasive physical treatments require further research using scientifically rigorous methods. The heterogeneity of the studies included in this review means that the results of a few additional high-quality trials in the future could easily change the conclusions of our review.