Skip to main content

«  View All Posts

Physical Therapy

Why Do I Have a Headache? Potential Causes and Treatment Options

November 9th, 2022 | 5 min. read

Why Do I Have a Headache? Potential Causes and Treatment Options
Josie Waddell

Josie Waddell

Licensed Physical Therapist, PT, DPT // EW Motion Therapy Meadowbrook/280

Print/Save as PDF

Headaches are common and affect a large percentage of the population. Depending on the severity, some headaches can be debilitating, making you cancel plans or call in sick to work. Headaches should not rule your daily life - finding the combination of medicine or other remedies that works for you is essential. But what do you do if you feel your headaches have progressed to a chronic state? And which professionals should you look to for help? 


While seeing your primary care doctor is always a good first step, depending on the headaches you are experiencing, they may send you to a chiropractor, neurologist, or even a physical therapist. Physical therapy can help with certain types of headaches, and our EW Motion Therapy staff are experts at evaluating and treating the root causes of headaches. Even if you do not become our client, we want to help you figure out the best treatment for your headaches. 


This article discusses why headaches can be challenging to treat, the different types of headaches and migraines, when you should seek further medical treatment, and how physical therapy could help your headaches. With this information, you can learn to manage your headaches and take away their control over your day.


Why are headaches so mysterious? 

Although headaches are so common, they are not well understood in the medical community. Because headache symptoms vary so widely between individuals, it can be challenging to pinpoint the exact cause or treatment necessary for a specific person’s headaches. Additionally, the head is arguably the most complex part of our body. There are multiple organs in the head and neck, which are intertwined with joints, muscles, and major blood vessels. Because of this, it can take studying one person at length to determine which part of that complex system is causing headaches or if it is something else entirely. 


Do I have a headache or a migraine? 

One of the first steps of receiving treatment for headaches is determining whether you have a headache or a migraine. They are different conditions at their core, and if you want to learn more about specific differences, read our article here. Let’s discuss different types of headaches and migraines. 


Types of headaches 

To discuss headaches, we need to distinguish between primary and secondary headaches. Primary headaches originate from a unique cause, while secondary headaches come on as a result of another condition. For example, a headache from a sinus infection would be considered a secondary headache, but a headache from too much screen time would be a primary headache. For this article, we will focus on primary headaches.


Primary headaches can be classified differently based on their location and severity. There are three main categories of primary headaches. 


  1. Tension headaches: Most tension headaches occur on both sides of the head or neck, and as the name suggests, come about due to stress, whether from work, home life, or some other source. 
  2. Cluster headaches typically center behind your eye on one side of your head and can occur due to many different causes. Cluster headaches can feel more intense since their location is more concentrated, and they usually have specific triggers, like some heart medications that cause dilation of blood vessels. 
  3. Thunderclap headaches: If you have a sudden onset of sharp pain, that is a sign of a thunderclap headache. Seek medical attention immediately for a thunderclap headache since these can point to neurological problems or brain injuries. 


Types of migraines

The medical community categorizes migraines based on whether they present with an aura. An aura is the umbrella term for motor and speech symptoms, such as a loss of balance or sensitivity to light or sound. Migraine symptoms vary significantly between individuals, but many people can manage their migraines as they learn their specific triggers over time. For example, some people get migraines from overeating sodium, so they learn to control that accordingly in their diet. Other causes of migraines could be caffeine dependency, dehydration, or a lack of sleep. 


While migraines can be managed for the most part, if you have more than 15 migraine days per month, your migraines have progressed to a chronic stage, and you should seek medical intervention.


Migraine vs. Headache: Causes and Potential Treatment


When should I seek further medical treatment? 

Many people can manage their headaches or migraines with over-the-counter medications, such as Advil or Tylenol, and manage their lifestyle choices according to their triggers. However, if you become dependent on those OTC medications, the dependency can cause more headaches or migraines later. As we mentioned, thunderclap headaches or sudden-onset migraines can point to brain injuries or other neurological issues, so it is vital to seek treatment immediately. Also, if your headaches or migraines progress to the point that your self-management is not working anymore, you should see your doctor to rule out red flags and get direction to the right specialist for your type of headache or migraine.


What can physical therapy do for headaches? 

A physical therapist might be a great professional to see if you find that your headaches or migraines result from a musculoskeletal dysfunction, a physical therapist might be a great professional to see. In your evaluation, they will determine whether your headaches are acute or chronic. Then, you can discuss your triggers and current management strategies, both medications and lifestyle choices. Many headaches can result from tight muscles in the head and neck, so many therapists will mobilize soft tissue and implement relaxation techniques for any stressed muscles. Additionally, for dysfunctional muscles, dry needling can sometimes provide immediate tension release. 


Education is a significant component of physical therapy for headaches or migraines because the ultimate goal of the treatment is complete self-management of symptoms and triggers. Your physical therapist can also refer you to a neurologist or other professional if necessary.


How else can I manage my headaches? 

Now you know more about headaches and migraines and when you should seek further medical treatment. If you are progressing to a chronic stage, keeping a record of your headaches, including the duration, location, and how you managed them, can be helpful. Since certain foods can be triggers, it can also be beneficial to keep a food journal so that when you get a headache, you can look back and see what foods have contributed to your symptoms. You can also implement healthy lifestyle choices and stress management techniques, as managing these can cure many types of headaches. 


Planning your life around headaches or migraines is no way for anyone to live. The ultimate goal for our clients at EW Motion Therapy is complete self-management of their symptoms, so they can continue their daily routines and pursue activities they enjoy. If you are curious about how else physical therapy can help you, click the button below to download our answers to 20 frequently-asked physical therapy questions.

New call-to-action