Have you ever had an intense or chronic headache? Maybe both? You know the kind, the ones that start out as bearable, then gradually build, and eventually it begins to feel like it takes over your life. According to the 2016 Global Burden Disease study, during the last 25 years, “tension-type headache” and “migraine” headaches Come in at number three and number six among 328 diseases and injuries across 195 countries. While headaches did not originate in China, are not airborne or contagious, and while currently there is no known vaccine, headaches are a worldwide problem that cause countless hours of time off from work and significantly decreased quality of life. But, if you’re still reading, you probably already know that.
Treating and alleviating the pain and stiffness associated with headaches usually comes down to either a trip to the pharmacy, physical therapy, or both. I began treating headaches with a combination of manual mobilization of the head and neck, corrective neuromuscular reeducation, and dry needle therapy as a result of my work and training in the United States Air Force with military members. In particular, pilots were the biggest fans of dry needle therapy, because they were minimally invasive, provided significant and immediate relief, and the treatment excluded the administration of drugs. This was significant because the doctor who decided whether or not they could fly did not have to prescribe them drugs, which allowed them to continue to stay in the cockpit. In the last decade, there has been an increasing interest in the use of dry needling for the treatment of headache as well as for neck and shoulder pain syndromes. Dry needling is a skilled intervention requiring significant and extensive training for the relief of myofascial pain disorders. With dry needling, a small sterile needle is Inserted into the painful fascia and muscle with the goal of deactivating dysfunctional myofascial trigger points without the use of an anesthetic. Dry needle therapy is a safe, efficient, and easy-to-learn-and-perform procedure with a low risk.
How do we know that the dry needling physical therapy intervention is effective for headaches? Most recently, two clinical trials that specifically dealt with tension type headaches demonstrated statistically significant Improvement following dry needling. And as recently as 2019 the medical journal Medicine conducted a high quality study that concluded, “The results of this clinical trial suggest that trigger point dry needling in patients with chronic tension-type headache is effective and safe in reducing headache intensity, frequency and duration, and increasing health-related quality of life.”
But will dry needle therapy help your specific type of headache? There are three major types of headaches: Tension-type headaches, cervicogenic headaches, and migraines. There is enough overlap between the first two that I will discuss them simultaneously in the below paragraph.
Tension-type headaches are usually described as a pressing or tightening pain that typically occurs on both sides of the head. While these types of headaches are extremely common and can occur among males and females of all ages, according to the international headache society, this type of headache is more common among females, and occurs most frequently between the ages of 30 and 39. Despite extensive neurophysiological and clinical studies, there has been little success in finding a common origin for these types of headaches, suggesting there are several factors at play, including physical, physiologic, neurologic, psychological, and emotional. Cervicogenic headaches, on the other hand, are characterized by chronic pain that originates from the neck vertebrae themselves or soft tissues of the neck, and the pain and dysfunction present in these structures are then referred to the head. The pain of cervicogenic headache is usually unilateral with occipitofrontal distribution of spread One thing we do know from all of these studies is that many times headaches are a result of referred pain originating in myofascial trigger points that originate in neck and shoulder muscles and surrounding soft tissues, such as fascia, tendons, and ligaments. Muscles which are commonly involved in tension-type headache include the sub-occipital, sternocleidomastoid, upper trapezius, levator scapula, splenius, temporalis, and masseter . In my own work with headache patients, dry needle therapy has been quite effective in releasing the tension from these very muscles, resulting in a significant decrease in the intensity and frequency of headaches over time.
Migraine is defined as a severe throbbing headache with nausea or vomiting associated with severe sensitivity to light (photophobia) that gets worse with everyday simple activities such as walking, sweeping the floor, or even driving. Migraines can last anywhere from a couple of hours to up to two or three days. Despite an entire medical industry devoted to the care and treatment of migraines, the mechanisms that cause these headaches to trigger and persist is not well understood. However,a study conducted In 2017 in the clinical Journal of pain indicated that patients with migraine Demonstrate active myofascial trigger points in their neck extensor muscles. As such, even migraine headaches have the potential to receive significant relief as a result of a holistic therapeutic approach that includes dry needle therapy within the plan of care.
Can dry needle therapy help with your headaches? Absolutely. Since arriving here in Colorado Springs in 2017 I have helped countless people using this simple and effective dry needle technique. It can even help alleviate the pain and symptoms of chronic headaches and migraines. If you’re wondering how dry needle therapy can become a part of your personalized, holistic rehabilitation plan of care, please reach out with any questions you have. I look forward to speaking with you.
Do you have questions about how dry needling can help speed your recovery and provide significant pain relief while improving function? Reach out at the phone number on this website or click the schedule button to get you moving again.
Dr. Scott A. Jones, PT
Movement Performance Coach
Are you tired of the cycle of frustration, and ready to get back to your activities?