Can an Osteopath Treat Migraines?

Whenever there is a reference made to osteopathy, many people automatically think of its use as a treatment for back pain, muscle pain, joint conditions, and sports injuries. Physical manipulation is known to help in promoting pain relief, and mobility, and boost healing. This emphasis on the musculoskeletal system means that osteopathy is not often mentioned in relation to headaches or migraines. Let us first define what a migraine is.

What is a migraine?

As much as 75% of people worldwide have experienced a headache at some point in their lives. This refers to a sharp, dull, throbbing, or constant pain that is felt in the head or face.  There are different kinds of headaches including:

  • Sinus headaches – these occur when a person is feeling sick and congested. The sinus passages will typically swell up, causing pain that radiates from the nose, cheeks and eyes.
  • Tension headaches – this pain often starts from the back of the head, spreading towards the front and across both sides of the head. It can often be chronic and accompanied by eyestrain and hunger.
  • Cluster headaches – these are headaches that are recurrent daily, often at around the same time of day. They can be quite painful and triggered by different things such as some type of physical exertion or flickering lights. The headache results from the dilation of blood vessels in the brain caused by the release of serotonin and histamines.

Migraines are not a type of headache, however, a headache can be a symptom of a migraine. Some medical experts may however classify a migraine as a primary type of headache. When migraines occur, there are typically changes in brain activity that affect blood flow to the brain and its tissues. This then results in various symptoms, including headaches of varying pain levels and duration. Other possible symptoms can include sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, dizziness and fatigue.

Migraines can be prolonged, often lasting as much as 72 hours, during which the person goes through a possible four stages of the symptoms. These stages include:

  1. Prodrome – the first stage which can last several hours to several days. Typically accompanied by mood swings and food cravings.
  2. Aura – the second stage that can last a few minutes up to an hour. The person may suffer sensory disturbances to their vision or speech.
  3. Headache – this can last from a few hours to several days, during which the person can experience a headache of varied intensity. It will often start on one side of the head and spread across. The pain may worsen if they engage in physical activity or are exposed to strong lights, smells and sounds.
  4. Postdrome – this can occur during the last one or two days of the attack. The person has a hangover feeling as the pain subsides and will often feel generally unwell and tired.

A migraine sufferer may not necessarily go through all these stages during an episode. There can also be quite a varied intensity of symptoms experienced between sufferers.

There are various possible triggers for tension headaches and migraines, including:

  • Hormonal changes
  • Allergies
  • Food allergies
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Stress
  • Weather changes

So, while there is a lot of commonality between headaches and migraines, they are actually different. Headaches are caused when certain nerves that interact with muscles and blood vessels are activated. The nerves then begin to send pain signals that result in a headache. Migraines are believed to be caused by nerve cells that overreact to certain triggers, causing chemical changes to the brain and impulses going to blood vessels that result in pain.

How are headaches and migraines treated?

There is no set treatment for headaches and migraines. There are however different medications that can be tried and lifestyle changes that may help. Some of the most common over-the-counter medications used include paracetamol, ibuprofen, aspirin, and acetaminophen.

For people that suffer moderate to severe pain migraines more often, prescription-strength painkillers may be prescribed to reduce the severity of the attack. This can include anti-seizure and blood pressure medications.

Lifestyle changes that can be recommended to reduce the severity and occurrence of headaches and migraines can include engaging in regular exercise, improving sleeping habits, avoiding trigger foods, and engaging in relaxing activities to relieve stress.

Patients are often advised to keep a diary to document possible triggers of their condition and record how severe and how long the episode lasted.

Can osteopathy help migraines?

Yes, osteopathy can help in the treatment and possible prevention of both headaches and migraines. Especially for patients that prefer a non-invasive and drug-free treatment option. As in the treatment of other conditions, an osteopath will look at not just how to boost the body’s ability to repair itself, but also what is causing the symptoms.

This may therefore require the patient to undergo some testing and scans to rule out more serious medical concerns. Osteopaths often work in conjunction with primary care physicians and specialists to ensure they are tackling the correct condition. Once a proper diagnosis is established, the osteopath will then move to treat the symptoms.

Osteopathy can provide pain relief and healing from migraine episodes. By targeting blocked passages, osteopathic treatment can improve blood flow and relieve painful muscle spasms. This is often done by working on the muscles in the neck, shoulder, and jaw areas.

Through manual therapies, an osteopath can help to relax tensed up muscles that will allow for easier movement and drainage of fluids in the lymphatic system. This can help jumpstart the body’s natural healing ability and reduce feelings of fatigue as in the postdrome phase.

Deep tissue massages to the head can relax strained muscles and release muscle spasms to relieve headache pain. This application to suboccipital muscles has been found effective for tension-type headaches. Trigger point massages that apply brief and direct pressure to targeted areas of the head and neck can also help relax strained muscles.

An osteopath can also provide guidance and advice on what lifestyle changes can be made to improve these conditions. When issues such as dietary factors, posture, stress management, and exercise have been addressed and helpful changes made, there is often a reduction in the severity and occurrence of pain with time.