Massage for Tension Headaches

by Jan 25, 2021

The tension headache.  That tightening ache that stems from your knotted neck and wraps around your head.  You feel like you’re wearing an undersized invisible headband, and you wish the thing would just snap in half.  You were stressed before the onset, and you become more stressed as the invisible band tightens.

What are you going to do?  You can lay down to rest since rest is good for just about everything.  But if the headache stems from sore neck muscles, a bit of rest isn’t going to smooth out those adhesions by itself.  You could take some pain medications, but that won’t treat the stress that caused and/or followed the ache.  If you want to address both the root and symptoms of the tension headache, bodywork is an ideal first step!

Which Massage is Best for Tension Headaches

Deep tissue and Swedish massage can both work wonders for tension headaches.  There are also special techniques, such as trigger point therapy and facial massage, that can complement any type of therapeutic massage.  So which one is best for your tension headache?

Deep Tissue

At your consultation, tell your massage therapist how your trapezius is doing.  Who is the trapezius?

Skeleton with trapezius muscles

This guy.

That diamond-shaped muscle has a lot to deal with, you know.  Poor posture tugs on it, weird sleep positions twist it, and emotional stress likes to dig into the upper half of it.  And when a trapezius stains, there’s another muscle group taking a hit with it: your suboccipitals.  These small muscles, which assist in stabilizing and turning the head, sit at the base of the skull.  They’re the ones that feel like a tight band during a tension headache, and the nerves they press on send that band-like sensation to the sides and front of the head.

The goal of a deep tissue massage is to break up muscular adhesions, and that relief can take a load off those compressed nerves.  Deep tissue can also improve posture, which prevents the constant pull on the trapezius that often causes tension headaches.

Swedish Massage

The deep work isn’t for everyone, and that’s ok.  Just because a Swedish massage isn’t considered corrective when compared to deep tissue, it does have benefits.  And one of those benefits, you guessed it because you’re reading this, is tension headache relief.

A relaxing massage stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.  When activated, this part of the nervous system counters the body’s responses to stress.  It lowers heart rate, improves respiration, and releases a surge of feel good hormones while inhibiting the production of stress hormones.  Serotonin, one of the mood stabilizing chemicals released, plays a major role in pain relief.  Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that triggers headaches, lessen when the body relaxes.

If you like having your hair touched, a scalp massage is an invigorating Swedish technique for tension headaches.  The nerve endings in your scalp are sensitive and, when lightly touched, send a soothing sensation to the muscles and dense tissue above your skull.

Because of this, Swedish massage can be an effective treatment for any stress related pain.

Trigger Point Therapy

Trigger point therapy is often added to deep tissue massage.  Evidence suggests that trigger points (specifically in the tender spots in the suboccipitals, upper trapezius, and sternocleidomastoid, and really any muscle that attaches to the base of the skull) contribute to tension headaches.  It’s not the most enjoyable technique, as it involves the digging and/or pinching of a hypersensitive pain point.  But sometimes the relief is instant.

Facial Massage

I mentioned a few tension headache causes earlier in this blog.  Do you want to know another common cause?  A clenched jaw.  Some people don’t even realize they regularly clench their jaws, as it often happens in one’s sleep.  Bruxism; an involuntary grinding of the teeth that I’ve lived with for ten years.  Well, I’ve likely been chattering my teeth for far longer than that.  I was only informed of it when I fell asleep in a crowded room at a very boring party in 2010.

I digress.  Face massage, especially the area between your jaw and cheek bone, can relieve headaches caused by bruxism.  A stiff masseter (that very muscle connecting the mandible to the cheek bone) can lead to stiffness in other muscles, including the aforementioned suboccipitals and trapezius.  The same suboccipitals and trapezius that, when tensed, cause tension headaches.  So get to the root of the root and get a face massage!

Also, there are pressure points on your face that correlate with tension headache relief.  Watch the video below for a face massage tutorial you can perform on yourself!



Schedule a Massage!

Now you know what the best massage for tension headaches is. So go get yourself a massage. Or acupressure massage yourself!  Stay happy, healthy, and tell that tension headache to hit the road.

Katrina Jenkins

Katrina Jenkins

Author, Licensed Massage Therapist

Katrina Jenkins graduated from Towson University in 2013 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Health Science and worked as a nurse’s aide briefly before pursuing her true passion. She graduated from the Massage Therapy Institute of Colorado in April 2016 with honors and completed the Touch of Healers Scholarship Program the following summer. She has been a part of the Moyer Total Wellness Team since the summer of 2017.


Alonso-Blanco, Cristina, et al. “Muscle Trigger Point Therapy in Tension-Type Headache.” Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, vol. 12, no. 3, Mar. 2012, pp. 315–322, 10.1586/ern.11.138. Accessed 27 June 2019.

Djavaherian, Derek M., and Kevin B. Guthmiller. “Occipital Neuralgia.” PubMed, StatPearls Publishing, 2020,

“Suboccipital Muscles – Attachments – Actions – Innervation – TeachMeAnatomy.” Teach Me Anatomy,

Photo Credit

Canva by lurii Maksymiv

Canva by Image Team

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