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Physical Therapy

Migraines vs. Headaches: Differences, Causes, and Treatments

February 16th, 2022 | 3 min. read

Migraines vs. Headaches: Differences, Causes, and Treatments
Kareth Dow

Kareth Dow

Physical Therapist, PT, DPT, MTC // EW Pilates Instructor // EW CoreAlign Instructor // Certified in Dry Needling // EW Motion Therapy Homewood

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There are many different reasons someone could get a headache. But before anyone can be treated for a headache, the nature of that headache must be known. For example, stress can contribute to a headache if your reaction to stress is to tighten the muscles that support your head position. We commonly refer to these as tension headaches, but there are many other reasons you may have a headache. So how do you know you are pursuing the best treatment for your headaches?


We see many patients with headaches at EW Motion Therapy. Before we can treat anyone for headaches, all other possibilities other than muscular stress have to be ruled out. This would include imaging for brain tumors or major circulatory problems. For example, high blood pressure is a very common reason for headaches, which must be treated medically. 


During a session addressing muscular stress, our physical therapists may try myofascial release and other hands-on techniques to balance overstressed muscle areas, while applying exercises that would improve posture to eliminate those stressed muscle areas before they lead to a problem. Even if you decide to use other methods to treat your headaches, we still want to advise on how to differentiate between different headaches and when you should seek professional help. 


This article discusses what can cause tension headaches and how they can differ from migraine headaches. With this information, you can decide whether you should consult a professional for a better understanding of what may cause your headaches. 


It is essential to know the difference between a regular headache and a migraine so you can get proper treatment. Learn more about the differences here.


What causes tension headaches? 

Tension headaches by nature are mechanical headaches. In the medical field, this means that something in your musculoskeletal system is causing the headache. For instance, if you have overactivity in your shoulders and neck, this can result in an imbalance, which can lead to a mechanical headache. 


The frequency of your headaches can ebb and flow with life events. If you are having a stressful week at work or going through a stressful life event, you are probably more likely to get more headaches. Also, if you don’t change your posture for a long time (e.g. plane ride, car ride) or do a new activity your body is not used to, this movement, or lack of movement, can cause a headache. 


Mechanical headaches vs. migraine headaches

It is important to differentiate between mechanical headaches and migraine headaches. Stress can be a major contributor to mechanical headaches, and migraine headaches can have other physiological reasons. Just like tension headaches are mechanical, migraine headaches are usually non-mechanical. This means that the underlying issue may vary from anything muscular. 


It is not the function of a physical therapist to distinguish between a migraine headache and a mechanical headache. The physiology of migraine headaches must be addressed by proper medical professionals who can address pharmacology and other treatments, which may not include physical therapy, to appropriately treat that headache. Migraine headaches may include symptoms such as nausea and seeing an aura. They can take longer to subside than mechanical headaches and are usually much more severe. You should consult your physician if you are having these symptoms regularly and need more information.


Once you have an understanding of the nature of your headaches, then you and your healthcare professional, such as a neurologist, can decide on a course of treatment. If the nature of your headaches is muscular, then choosing a physical therapist might be a great solution. 


Download our Physical Therapy Q&A Here!


When can additional therapy help? 

Now you know more about tension or mechanical headaches and how they can differ from migraine headaches. If you have tension headaches regularly, it might be beneficial to seek professional help. A physical therapist may use myofascial release and other hands-on techniques to reduce tension in the muscles, which is created by postural imbalances. They will also work with you to develop an individualized plan, which may include strengthening and stretching, to promote proper posture in both sitting and standing. 


We all experience stressors in life, but our patients at EW Motion Therapy come away from their sessions with a home exercise plan that will help them maintain good posture and handle stress better within their bodies. If you are interested in therapy with us, fill out the Request an Appointment form on our website, and someone from our staff will contact you within 48 hours with your next steps.


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