Can Massage Help Your Migraine?

Can Massage Help Your Migraine?

Migraine headaches are one of the most common disorders affecting approximately one billion people worldwide. A migraine is characterized by debilitating moderate to severe pain and throbbing in the head (usually on one side), and can be accompanied by nausea, sensitivity to light, smells, sound, as well as visual disturbances called an ‘aura’. These symptoms can worsen with any exertion and are sometimes preceded by neurologic signs such as seeing flashes of light or noticing blind spots in vision or experiencing tingling in extremities.

The end of a migraine is often referred to as a “headache hangover” and can leave the sufferer feeling exhausted, dizzy and weak. There can also be decreases in cognitive function as well as an inability to work or socialise.

What Triggers a Migraine?

Studies have pinpointed changes in the nervous system as the primary cause of migraines but there are many other factors that contribute to the onset of a migraine:

  • Stress (good or bad) is one of the primary triggers that activates the Sympathetic Nervous System
  • Hormonal fluctuations of estrogen in women
  • Changes in the weather that shifts barometric pressure
  • Too much or not enough sleep or changes in sleep patterns such as from jet lag
  • Foods such as alcohol, cheese, chocolate, MSG in foods, caffeine or changes in eating habits (skipping meals or fasting) as well as food allergies
  • Medications such as oral contraceptives or vasodilators (nitroglycerin)
  • Intense physical exertion
  • Sensory overload from bright lights, sun glare, fluorescent lights, loud sounds, strong or unpleasant odors
  • Changes in eating, sleeping, or exercise habits
  • Depression

Anatomy of a Migraine

The physical mechanisms that trigger migraines are the subject of ongoing scientific research but there is general consensus that migraines are the result of imbalances in brain chemicals that result from:

  • The activation of the trigeminal nerve in the brain (responsible for transmitting sensations from the face to the brain).  When it is stimulated, it releases chemicals that can irritate and dilate the blood vessels on the brain’s surface. The outcome of this swelling sends pain signals to the brainstem causing the migraine to begin.
  • Reduced levels of serotonin, which helps regulate pain in your nervous system.
  • Chemical imbalances in the brain due to the prolonged stress responses in the sympathetic nervous system has been found to cause a decrease in the production of the calming stress hormone, norepinephrine (NE). This creates a corresponding imbalance with other neurotransmitters, dopamine, adenosine and prostaglandins that dilates blood vessels in the brain causing inflammation and pain.

Massage Therapy for Migraines

Massage therapy can be a safe, drug-free and effective intervention for migraines due to its ability to manage stress and relieve tension.

Studies at The Touch Institute of the University of Miami School of Medicine and at the University of Auckland found that massage therapy could be an effective treatment for migraines both during and preventatively. Improvements in frequency as well as sleep quality, less anxiety, lower heart rate and decreases in the stress hormone, cortisol were noted with the addition of massage therapy for migraine sufferers.


Such massage protocols as Swedish, Deep Tissue massage as well as Sports, Pre-Natal and Geriatric processes can be modified to support migraine sufferers. These massages:

  • Promote the reduction of stress and anxiety and improve sleep quality to diminish the frequency and intensity of migraines.
  • Release chemicals such as endorphins to reduce pain, support a sense of well-being and calm the peripheral nervous system.
  • Reduce cortisol to quiet the stress responses of the sympathetic nervous system.
  • Increase the production of serotonin levels to help calm migraine pain
  • Reduce the potential for overuse of pain relieving medications and analgesics
  • Help to relax and loosen knotted tissue and muscles at the base of the skull to reduce pain and tension in head.
  • Neuromuscular therapy (trigger point therapy) can focus on tender, inflamed tissue areas that refer pain to other areas of the body.
  • Promote an increase in blood flow and oxygen supply to help heal painful areas.

While massage therapy is safe and supportive, not all types are suitable for migraines. It is important to clearly communicate your symptoms to your massage therapist so that the best approach can be taken. Also, it is helpful to obtain a doctor’s permission to rule out any serious underlying conditions or medication contraindications.

migraine stress relief at the spa

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