Migraine headaches, or migraines, are recurrent headaches that may be severe &, in some cases, completely incapacitating. More than 29 million persons have migraines (1). Women are affected more than men (4 : 1 ratio). The average age of onset is between 25 & 55 years, but migraines can occur in children. Massage can help.

Migraines are often provoked by a trigger factor. These triggers include hunger as well as certain foods (carbohydrates, iodine-rich foods, cheese, chocolate), alcomigraine-food-opener-rawhol (usually red wine), bright lights, loud noises, hormonal changes, atmospheric changes, & the period of relaxation after physical or emotional stress. Migraine headaches can last from 6 to 48 hours, & a prolonged recovery period often ensues.

Although the exact mechanism is not fully understood, migraine headaches appear to be related to imbalances in brain chemicals, including serotonin & neuropeptides. Chemical imbalances cause intracranial blood vessels to become dilated & inflamed, resulting in a migraine headache. Migraine headaches are also called vascular headaches.

Before the onset of the migraine, approximately 1 in 5 people experience a visual aura such as sparkling flashes of light, dazzling zigzag lines, or a slowly expanding blind spot in the visual field.

The headache pain of a migraine is often described as throbbing, pounding, or pulsating, with a moderate to severe intensity. This pain is located on one side, but it may spread to include the entire head. Other symptoms include chills, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, & light, noise, or touch sensitivity. The person often feels abnormally fatigued or irritable.

When the migraine headache beings (called an attack), the person is usually given medications to reduce pain, produce sleep, & constrict dilated blood vessels. Medication to control nausea & vomiting may also be prescribed. The person is asked to rest in a dark, quiet room during the attack.

free-massage-clipart-1Massage Therapy and Migraine Headaches

Massage is postponed until the client has completely recovered from the migraine. Additionally, a client is not likely to want a massage. Consider recommending that the client apply menthol-infused products (10% solution) to the forehead & temporal regions as it was found to reduce pain & nausea, as well as sound & light hypersensitivity in persons with migraine headaches who did not experience pre-migraine auras (2).

After the migraine, massage can be applied. Focus on muscles of the scalp, suboccipitals, posterior neck, shoulders, & upper back.

Massage improved sleep quality, & reduced migraine frequency (3, 4). Massage also reduced stress & anxiety, decreased heart rate & cortisol levels, & improved coping efficacy (4). When massage over the posterior neck & upper back areas was combined with spinal manipulations, headache pain intensity was reduced (5).

While not specifically for migraines, this video features an effective routine to reduce headache pain.


Picture Credits:


Articles and Journals Referenced:

  1. National Headache Foundation: Fact sheet. http://www.health-exchange.net/pdfdb/headfactEng.pdf
  2. Haghighi, A. B., Motazedian, S., Rezaii, R., Mohammadi, F., Salarian, L., et al, (2010). Cutaneous application of menthol 10% solution as an abortive treatment of migraine without aura: A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossed-over study. Int J Clin Pract. 64(4):451-6.
  3. Hernandez-Reif, M., Dieter J., Field, T., Swerdlow, B., Diego, M. (1998). Migraine headaches were reduced by massage therapy, Int J Neurosci. 96(1-2):1–11.
  4. Lawler, S. P., Cameron, L. D. (2006). A randomized, controlled trial of massage therapy as a treatment for migraine. Ann Behav Med, 32(1):50-9.
  5. Noudeh, Y. J., Vatankhah, N., Baradaran, H. R. (2012). Reduction of current migraine headache pain following neck massage and spinal manipulation. Int J Ther Massage Bodywork. 5(1): 5–13.



Susan Salvo is a board certified massage therapist with 30+ years of experience. Susan is passionate about massage therapy and massage education. You can contact her at susansalvo@hotmail.com.