Physiotherapy for headaches – when panadol isn’t enough

Published: 16 Aug 2023

Physiotherapy for headaches – when panadol isn’t enough

Headaches affect more than half of people worldwide[1]. There are many types of headaches and if you couldn’t tell from the title, physiotherapy can help relieve them!
Let’s break down what headaches are and how they can be managed.

There are several types of headaches, including:

  1. Tension headaches: These are the most common type of headache, and are often caused by stress, anxiety, or tension in the neck and shoulder muscles. They feel like a dull ache in a tight band pattern around the head and normally don’t change with activity.
  2. Migraine headaches: These headaches are typically characterised by a pulsating or throbbing pain on one side of the head, and are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.
    These are triggered by different things such as certain foods (chocolate, caffeine and wine!), stress, dehydration, bright lighting, and loss of appetite.
  3. Cervicogenic headaches: These are headaches that stem from upper neck pain. The upper neck pain is commonly caused by poor posture such as when we look down at our phones for a long time or having a rounded upper back. You can read more here and here.  Physiotherapy can be very helpful in this scenario.
  4. Jaw pain related headaches: These are typically located in the temple or forehead area and may feel like a tension headache. These are brought on by temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction, where the jawbone connects to the skull. TMJ dysfunction normally causes a variety of other symptoms, including jaw pain, clicking or popping sounds when opening and closing the mouth and difficulty chewing. This is best treated with an assessment by one of our physios specialising in TMJ dysfunction. You can read more here.
  5. Sinus headaches: These headaches are caused by inflammation of the sinuses, and are typically characterised by pain and pressure in the forehead, cheeks, and nose. They worsen when you bend forward.

How to keep headaches at bay?

Painkillers are considered a “band aid” approach to alleviating headaches as it works to decrease inflammation and block pain signals. However, they don’t address the cause of increased inflammation or what is causing the pain signals in the first place.

There are many strategies that will help prevent headaches from coming again, depending on your cause:

  • Physiotherapy will release tight neck muscles, loosen stiff neck joints, improve your neck control and posture through exercises to reduce the strain placed on your head.
physiotherapy for headache

Tina is demonstrating a manual technique to manage headache pain.

  • Relaxation techniques – deep breathing, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation.
  • Regular physical activity and avoiding being in the same posture for long periods of time (this could be even 30 minutes) helps to manage stress, but also improve mobility:
    • if you’re working, do some shoulder shrugs, try these exercises, get up and make a cup of tea or check the post, or
    • try out new hobbies: join a walking group or attend a pilates class.
  • Identify and avoid triggers: Keep a headache diary to help identify potential triggers, such as certain foods, dehydration, activities, or stressors. Once you have identified your triggers, try to avoid them as much as possible.
  • Getting an eye test – sometimes straining our eyes to read a screen can cause our eye and neck muscles to overwork which then contribute to headaches + neck pain. Updating your prescription or getting a pair of glasses will help with headaches + make life a lot easier to see!
  • Going to a dental specialist and TMJ physio for jaw related headaches.
  • Using steam/hot showers and nasal sprays to relieve the sinuses if they are inflamed.
  • Changing your desk set up to be more ergonomic – this will help with reducing eye strain and neck stiffness which can cause a headache.


[1] Stovner, L.J., Hagen, K., Linde, M. et al. The global prevalence of headache: an update, with analysis of the influences of methodological factors on prevalence estimates. J Headache Pain 23, 34 (2022).