Working With Headaches, Part I: Musculoskeletal Headaches
myofascial techniques

By Til Luchau

Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, July/August 2010. Copyright 2010. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

Take a guess: how many kinds of headaches are there? With Google and a few minutes, you can compile a list of hundreds of distinct types of headaches.

These include, but are not limited to: cryogenic headache (after eating ice cream), hair wash headache (found most commonly in Indian women, whose hair, due to its length, is wet from washing a good proportion of the time, and thus heavy), coital cephalalgia (or "morning after" headache), ictal headache (accompanying seizures), thunderclap headache (sudden severe onset), and many, many more. How would you begin to formulate a coherent approach to dealing with headaches when there are so many kinds and causes?

Fortunately, we can narrow it down. Headaches are conventionally classified as either primary (not caused by another condition) or secondary (you guessed it, caused by another condition). Examples of secondary headaches include those resulting from head injuries, from metabolic and medical conditions, etc. Although hands-on work can still help in many cases, these and other types of secondary headaches usually merit referral to a physician first. This is generally a good practice with any persistent or recurring headache.1

Primary headaches are further subclassified as arising from either:
1. Musculoskeletal origins (such as tension headaches and others related to myofascial or articular restriction).
2. Vascular factors (such as migraines and cluster headaches).
3. Comingled causes (that is, arising from a combination of musculoskeletal and vascular sources).

Musculoskeletal headaches are the most common, though not necessarily the most severe. In this first of two articles, I'll describe a few techniques from's Advanced Myofascial Techniques series that are effective with this type of headache. In Part 2, we'll focus on ways to help mitigate migraines and vascular headaches.

Let's begin by looking at ways to distinguish musculoskeletal from vascular headaches, summarized in the table on page 111. Although comingled headaches are common, making the distinction between musculoskeletal and vascular headaches is important, because the pain from vascular headaches (such as many migraines) can be made worse by the same techniques that are so effective at relieving musculoskeletal headache pain.

Technique: Superficial and Deep Fascias of the Scalp
The superficial fascia of the scalp (Image 1, page 110, and 2, at right) is directly continuous with the superficial fascial membranes of the back of the neck, and by extension, the superficial fascia of the rest of the body. Its position on the crown of the head gives it the unique role of connecting front of the body to the back, and left side to right. As such, it is a mediator and transmitter of fascial stresses and compensations elsewhere in the body. Also known as the subcutaneous fibro-adipose layer, it lies between the outer layers of skin and the underlying galea aponeurotica or epicranium. Although this deeper layer is also mainly membranous, it contains the occipitofrontalis muscles. Because the galea is continuous laterally with the temporal fascia overlying the temporalis muscle, it is particularly sensitive to jaw tension. Deep to the galea is the pericranium on the bones of the skull themselves (Image 2).

Besides transmitting strain and referred pain from the rest of the body's fascias, the cranial layers play a direct role in headaches associated with face, neck, and eye strain, as well as mental exertion or stress. The adaptability and pliability of these layers is essential to free motion of the underlying sutures and cranial bones. Suture restrictions can play a role in both musculoskeletal and vascular headaches, and so insuring the cranial fascias' differentiation and freedom is a logical first step in working with headaches.

To release the cranial fascias, use your fingertips to move the various layers against each other and against the skull. We're not scrubbing the surface of the scalp or shampooing the hair; we're sliding, shearing, and freeing the fascial layers themselves. Imagine loosening the rind of a cantaloupe around the flesh of the melon: use firm, deep transverse pressure to assess and release adhesions, pulls, and thickenings. Use a decisive but sensitive touch; be patient and thorough. Spend at least several minutes with this technique, working the various layers over the entire head, adding active movements of the eyes, face, and eyebrows once the outer layers have been released (Images 3-7, page 113).

Nuchal Window Technique
Working the suboccipital muscles is a well-known way to relieve tension headaches. The Nuchal Window Technique is a variation on this approach. With your client supine, place your fingertips longitudinally along either side of the nuchal ligament, with your middle fingers just under the occipital ridge at the superior end of the nuchal ligament (Images 9 and 10). With firm but patient pressure, encourage the musculature and soft tissue on either side of the ligament to release laterally. Our intention is to "open the window" of the suboccipital space in order to give more room to the small muscles there and to the important cervical nerves that pass between them (Image 8), often a source of posterior head pain. Although very effective for tension headaches, working the suboccipital region has sometimes been observed to worsen vascular headaches, perhaps because it may increase cranial circulation. Review the distinctions in the table on page 111, and if you suspect vascular elements, use suboccipital work carefully, watching how your client responds.

Musculoskeletal headaches are seldom related to just the cranial fascia or suboccipital muscles: jaw, neck, eye, and shoulder tension will also contribute to many headache patterns, so think broadly. Although headaches have many causes, the two techniques described here are simple but extremely effective hands-on work that will provide relief and help prevent recurrence when there is musculoskeletal involvement. In the next installment, we'll look at ways to address migraines and vascular headaches, adding even more options to your technique toolbox.

Til Luchau is a member of the faculty, which offers continuing education seminars throughout the United States and abroad. He is also a Certified Advanced Rolfer and teaches for the Rolf Institute. Contact him at and via's Facebook page.

1. The importance of referring persistent headaches to a physician for evaluation was driven home to me several years ago when our office manager at the time was diagnosed with a brain tumor that eventually, and tragically, proved fatal. Headaches had been her only symptom. Don't scare your clients, of course, but do insist on screening for recurring, severe, or persistent headaches.

2. Although migraine pain is typically aggravated by activity or movement (climbing stairs, bending over, etc.), some cluster headaches (also a vascular headache) can be relieved by vigorous aerobic activity.

Skin Care Therapy

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- Working With Whiplash, Part 1: Hot Whiplash
- Working With Whiplash, Part 2: Cold Whiplash
- Working With Headaches, Part 2: Understanding Migraines and Vascular Headaches
- Working With Headaches, Part 3: Techniques for Migraines
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- The Brain and Bodywork
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