Medication is a common way to prevent and treat migraine headaches, but some research suggests massage therapy may be helpful for some people. That’s especially good news for people who struggle with the side effects of migraine medications.
Don’t ditch your headache meds just yet, though. There isn’t much data to know for sure, which is why massage therapy isn’t part of the official treatment recommendations for migraine from the American Headache Society, an organization of health care providers who specialize in head and facial pain.
But what we do know is that the migraine-specific science is promising. Many small studies have linked massage to migraine relief for decades. Plus, there’s plenty of high-quality research that shows massage therapy can help relieve common migraine triggers, such as stress and sleep problems.
What the Science Shows
Massage therapy for migraine relief isn’t a new idea. The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) offers a course for its members to learn about migraines and how massage can help. Some top doctors also recommend massage therapy for migraines.
Here’s a look at a few of the studies that suggest massage therapy could be an effective migraine treatment.
Massage therapy may reduce migraine pain and improve quality of life. A U.S. study of people with migraines placed 26 participants into two groups. The control group got no intervention, while a massage group got two massages a week for 5 weeks. The massage group fared much better, reporting:
- Much less migraine pain
- More headache-free days
- Fewer sleep problems
- Higher levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin
Massage therapy may reduce migraine frequency and improve sleep. A 13-week New Zealand study of nearly 50 people also divided participants into a control and a massage group. Both groups completed regular questionnaires about their health and habits. The massage group also received weekly massages during weeks 5-10.
The benefits were clear and lasting, even during the last 3 weeks of the study without massages. Compared with the control group, the massage group reported:
- Less frequent migraines
- Decreases in anxiety, heart rate, and the stress hormone cortisol
- Better stress management and coping skills
- Greatly improved sleep quality
Massage therapy may work as well as medicine to prevent migraines in some cases. Massage isn’t the only manual therapy used for migraines. One review looked at the preventive potential of massage therapy, physiotherapy, and chiropractic spinal manipulation. Based on the available evidence, all three manual therapies appear to work well as two common medicines for migraine prevention: propranolol (Inderal LA, Inderal XL, InnoPran XL), and topiramate (Eprontia, Qudexy XR, Topamax, Trokendi XR).
Types of Massage for Migraine Relief
Massage therapy can be relaxing or intense. It can use hot stones or cold stones. It can focus on your feet or work magic above your neck.
Is there one that works better than another when it comes to headache relief? Absolutely, but it may be different for you than for someone else. The best type of massage for your migraines will depend on your preferences, your triggers, and ultimately your results.
As you think about your options, consider this list of massage types that have some published science to support their use.
Traditional and aromatherapy massage. Traditional massage helps relieve anxiety and promote relaxation. If you add aromatherapy, where the practitioner includes essential oils in the session, you may feel even better. Research shows that lavender essential oil can help relieve stress and promote quality sleep. One study even suggests that lavender aromatherapy helps reduce migraine symptoms.
Keep in mind that essential oils, which seem natural and safe, can have negative effects as well. Some can trigger headaches or other symptoms in people who are sensitive to smells.
Trigger point massage. Some people find headache relief with head and neck trigger-point massage. The idea behind its effectiveness: problems in your skeletal muscle refer pain up to your head. When you “release” those muscles, your chronic headaches ease up.
Research on trigger point massage for migraine is limited but promising. One study that found trigger point therapy plus medication was significantly more effective for migraine relief than medication alone.
Reflexology. In this type of massage, a practitioner applies pressure to different parts of your hands or feet. Similar to trigger point massage, the principle is that stimulating one part of your body can promote health and healing in another. At the least, it can promote a sense of calm, which is important if you have migraines. Several studies show some specific benefits of reflexology:
- Greater relaxation
- Improved sleep
- Lower stress levels
- Decreased pain
Thai massage. Unlike a typical Western massage, which is soothing, Thai massage is active. It brings together muscle compression, stretching, pulling, and rocking. It also has a link to less intense pain in migraines. Consider it as part of an overall, self-care approach to migraine management -- but be sure to speak up if the treatment becomes uncomfortable.
Hot or cold stone therapy. Hot and cold therapy (think heating pads and ice packs) have long been used to relieve pain and discomfort. Hot or cold stone therapy achieves similar ends via heated or cooled, ultra-smooth stones.
Heat tends to induce relaxation, which is a key benefit of hot stone massage: a therapy in which warm stones are used along with the massage therapist’s hands. Studies show hot stone massage can promote better sleep long after you’ve left the treatment room.
Cold stone therapy for migraines involves cooled, lightweight stones placed along your face and neck. The specific technique hasn’t been vetted in the scientific literature, but cold therapy for migraine and other pain has, with good results.
The Best Time to Get a Massage for Migraine
A regular massage therapy program may be the best way to lessen the impact of migraines on your life, but many people don’t have the time or funds. The next best thing? Massage therapy at the first sign of migraine -- or even during one.
If you catch it early enough, you may be able to prevent a full-blown attack, according to the AMTA. If your head’s already throbbing, research suggests massage therapy may put a stop to the pain.
How to Find the Right Therapist
Any well-trained massage therapist should be able to provide treatment that relaxes your body and mind. If you hope to see a massage therapist who has specific knowledge about the role of massage for migraine relief, you’ll need to do some research.
- You can search the AMTA’s website for a therapist near you. Use the search term “migraine,” in addition to your city.
- On your own or through your health care provider, find a headache center near you that offers massage.
- Before you book a massage, ask if the therapist has taken a continuing education course on massage for migraines, which offers education about migraines and the appropriate types of massage to ease migraine pain.
You can also be your own massage therapist. Ask your headache doctor or a trusted massage therapist for tips on technique. And don’t forget the ancient practice of acupressure, which has a long history of use for easing pain and headaches. Use your right thumb and forefinger to squeeze the fleshy tissue at the base of your left thumb and forefinger. Press down and massage the area for 5 minutes, and then switch hands.