Background: Primary headache disorders, especially migraine, are commonly accompanied by neck pain or other symptoms. Because of this, physical therapy (PT) and other physical treatments are often prescribed. This review updates and synthesizes published clinical trial evidence, systematic reviews, and case series regarding the efficacy of selected physical modalities in the treatment of primary headache disorders.
Methods: The National Library of Medicine (MEDLINE), The Cochrane Library, and other sources of information were searched through June 2004 to identify clinical studies, systematic reviews, case series, or other information published in English that assessed the treatment of headache or migraine with chiropractic, osteopathic, PT, or massage interventions.
Results: PT is more effective than massage therapy or acupuncture for the treatment of TTH and appears to be most beneficial for patients with a high frequency of headache episodes. PT is most effective for the treatment of migraine when combined with other treatments such as thermal biofeedback, relaxation training, and exercise. Chiropractic manipulation demonstrated a trend toward benefit in the treatment of TTH, but evidence is weak. Chiropractic manipulation is probably more effective in the treatment of tension-type headache (TTH) than it is in the treatment of migraine. Evidence is lacking regarding the efficacy of these treatments in reducing headache frequency, intensity, duration, and disability in many commonly encountered clinical situations. Many of the published case series and controlled studies are of low quality.
Conclusions and recommendations: Further studies of improved quality are necessary to more firmly establish the place of physical modalities in the treatment of primary headache disorders. With the exception of high velocity chiropractic manipulation of the neck, the treatments are unlikely to be physically dangerous, although the financial costs and lost treatment opportunity by prescribing potentially ineffective treatment may not be insignificant. In the absence of clear evidence regarding their role in treatment, physicians and patients are advised to make cautious and individualized judgments about the utility of physical treatments for headache management; in most cases, the use of these modalities should complement rather than supplant better-validated forms of therapy.