Physical therapy for headaches

Cephalalgia. 2016 Oct;36(12):1134-1142. doi: 10.1177/0333102415596445. Epub 2016 Jul 20.


Background Headache is the medical problem most commonly observed by neurologists. Non-pharmacological treatments are commonly demanded by individuals with headaches, but their evidence of effectiveness is conflicting. Aim The current review provides an updated discussion on what is supported by current scientific evidence about physical therapies for tension-type headache (TTH), migraine, and cervicogenic headache (CeH), and which gaps there still may be in our understanding of the interventions. Methods PubMed, MEDLINE, EMBASE, AMED, CINAHL, EBSCO, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Cochrane Collaboration Trials Register, PEDro, and SCOPUS were searched from their inception through March 2015. Results/Discussion Several physical therapies including spinal joint manipulation/mobilization, soft tissue interventions, therapeutic exercises and needling therapies are proposed to be effective for the management of headaches. Current evidence has shown that the effectiveness of these interventions will depend on proper clinical reasoning since not all interventions are equally effective for all headache pain conditions. For instance, evidence of physical therapy in migraine is more controversial than in TTH, since migraine pathogenesis involves activation of sub-cortical structures and the trigemino-vascular system, whereas pathogenesis of TTH is more associated with musculoskeletal disorders, e.g. muscle pain. It seems that multimodal approaches including different interventions are more effective for patients with TTH, migraine and CeH.

Keywords: Physical therapy; cervicogenic headache; manual therapy; migraine; soft tissue; spinal manipulation; tension type headache.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acupuncture Therapy / methods*
  • Combined Modality Therapy / methods
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Exercise Therapy / methods*
  • Headache / diagnosis
  • Headache / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Manipulation, Spinal / methods*
  • Migraine Disorders / diagnosis
  • Migraine Disorders / therapy*
  • Treatment Outcome