• Christina Hellmann

Headaches & self-massage techniques for the head

We all know what it’s like to experience headaches. It’s a very common complaint in the UK. Luckily, most aren’t serious and are easily treated. There are many types of headache ranging from tension headaches, to migraine, cluster headache and many more. For many people, certain triggers can contribute to headaches. One of the most common triggers is thought to be stress. As we continue to experience lock-down, I know that stress levels for some of us may be higher than usual and can lead to many of us experiencing more frequent headaches. In this blog, I wanted to explore some different types of headache and show you some very simple but effective head self-massage techniques that you can practice on yourself to ease the tension around your head.

Tension headaches

This is the most common type of headache – the ‘everyday headache’. Tension headaches can develop at any age but are more common in women. Tension headaches are normally described as a constant dull ache which affects both sides of the head. The neck and shoulder muscles may feel tight and there may be a feeling of pressure behind the eyes. Although uncomfortable, tension headaches aren’t normally severe enough to prevent the sufferer from doing everyday activities.

Triggers of this type of headache are thought to include:

  • Stress/anxiety

  • Tiredness

  • Dehydration

  • Missing meals

  • Lack of activity

  • Noise

  • Certain smells

Treatment involves simple painkillers and certain lifestyle changes e.g. eating regularly, drinking more fluid, stress management etc.


Migraines are less common than tension headaches but are again also more common in women than men. Migraines are split into two main categories: migraine with aura and migraine without aura. Migraine with aura means that the sufferer experiences specific warning signs a day or two before the migraine actually occurs. These signs can include things like sudden mood changes, seeing flashing lights, pins and needles etc. This is useful as it can help the sufferer prepare for a migraine attack before it occurs. But most sufferers fall into the migraine without aura category which means there are no warning signs before an attack comes on.

Migraines affect people very differently. Some experience migraines weekly, whilst others can go for months or years between attacks.

The symptoms are more severe than that of a tension headache. The pain is described as throbbing in nature and typically only affects one side of the head rather than both. The pain is normally severe enough that the sufferer cannot continue with daily activities. Other symptoms that may occur along with the pain are nausea/vomiting, fatigue, abdominal pain and a worsening of pain when exposed to bright lights or certain smells.

The causes of migraine are unclear but it’s thought to be the result of temporary changes in hormones, nerves and blood vessels in the brain. Triggers are thought to include:

  • Menstruation

  • Stress/anxiety

  • Tiredness

  • Certain foods or drinks

  • Certain medications e.g. HRT, or some kinds of contraceptive pill

There is no cure for migraines, only treatments to help ease the symptoms such as lying down in a dark room, avoiding triggering foods or drinks and stress management. Certain medications such as triptans may be prescribed by the GP if the migraines are especially disruptive to the sufferer’s quality of life.

Cluster headaches

These are rare and are more common in men. As the name suggests, this type of headache comes in clusters. The symptoms are usually described as a severe, sharp/burning/piercing sensation on one side of the head, normally felt around the eye and temple. Cluster headaches normally begin quickly and without warning. Clusters normally last between fifteen minutes and three hours and the sufferer can experience up to eight attacks in one day. These clusters may be present for bouts lasting several weeks or months at a time and then the sufferer goes through a period of remission where they will experience no symptoms for months or even years before another attack of cluster headaches return again.

The cause of cluster headaches is unclear but it’s thought to be linked to activity in the hypothalamus in the brain. According to studies, people who smoke seem to have a higher risk of getting them and in some cases, appears to run in families.

Treatment usually involves triptan medications and oxygen therapy (breathing pure oxygen through a face mask), although treatment is usually only effective if taken at the beginning of an attack.

Medication over use headache (MOH)

This type of headache is caused by taking too many painkillers to treat headaches. It is thought that one in ten people who suffer frequent headaches may have a MOH. They normally occur daily after taking painkillers for tension headache or migraine over several months. They are caused by taking painkillers for too long as opposed to exceeding the recommended dose.

The medications that can cause MOH are:

  • Codeine

  • NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs e.g. ibuprofen)

  • Paracetamol

  • Triptan medications

The only way to treat a MOH is to stop taking the painkillers. This may need to be done under the supervision of a GP or healthcare professional. Once the medication has been stopped, it is very common for the headaches to get worse initially and to experience other symptoms such as nausea and poor sleep for around 7-10 days before the headache tends to subside.

Note: if the MOH has been going on for years and is caused by codeine medications, it must be supervised by a GP as abruptly stopping these types of medications can be dangerous.

Other causes of headaches

  • Drinking too much alcohol

  • Concussion

  • Colds/viruses

  • Obstructive sleep apnoea

  • Jaw disorders

  • Sinusitis

Signs of a serious headache

Luckily, the vast majority of headache are not life threatening but those that are may present with:

  • Sudden, severe headache

  • Headache occurring after a head injury

  • Headache with nervous system changes e.g. weakness, slurred speech, confusion, memory loss etc.

  • Headache that is getting progressively worse

  • Headache with a fever, stiff neck, rash, jaw pain, visual problems or sore scalp

If any of these occur, it is important to be urgently referred for further investigation.

Self-massage for headache

Massaging the tissues around the head can be a great way of managing tension type headaches and it’s so easy to do. Give these four simple techniques a go. Work within your own pressure preferences. You only need to do a couple of minutes for each one. Try deep breathing at the same time to make it even more effective.

Forehead drain

Start by placing your fingers in the centre of your forehead. Apply a gentle pressure and slowly move your fingers towards your temples whilst maintaining that pressure. Repeat as often as you feel you need. This not only works on reducing tension in the frontalis muscle (the muscle over the forehead), but is also a great way to drain the frontal sinus.

Temple circles

Bring your fingers to your temples. Apply a gentle pressure and make small circles over the temples maintaining that pressure. This is a lovely technique for the temporalis muscle.

Scalp circles

Place your fingers on your scalp. Apply a gentle pressure and make small circles all the way over your scalp. Don’t forget to go round to the back of the head. You can even work to the base of the head and neck. This helps to release the tension over the scalp muscles.

The rake

Starting at the hairline by the forehead, gently apply pressure through your fingers as you make little raking movements from the front of the head to the back. Work all the way around the hair line to work on both sides of the head too. This is another lovely technique for relaxing the muscles of the scalp.


So to conclude, headaches are extremely common but luckily most aren’t serious. With stress levels likely to be higher right now, tension around the neck, scalp and head may build up. If you are suffering from the ‘everyday’ tension headache, give the above self-massage techniques a go. If you experience any of the symptoms outlined in the ‘signs of serious headache’ paragraph, it is really important you seek health advice from 111. I hope you have found this blog useful. Although I cannot treat you in person yet, don’t forget I am here if you need any advice on the phone or via email.