What Is the Best Massage for Headaches

by Apr 1, 2021

So many types of headaches, and so many hate-able traits for each one of them.  The sensitivity to light and sound brought on by migraines.  The aching pressure from tension headaches.  The facial pain of a sinus headache.  The swelling and sweating caused by cluster headaches.  And then every awful allergy symptom that accompanies an allergy headache.

I just gave myself a headache writing about headaches.  Great!  Now, what am I supposed to do?  I could pop an ibuprofen and keep my eyes shut until daylight is gone.  I could stick my head out the window and yell at my neighbor for mowing his lawn while I’m in such pain.  (The nerve!)  Or maybe I could opt for something natural and soothing that wouldn’t make my neighbors dislike me.

Hey, that last one sounds pretty nice!  Now, what’s a natural soothing way to quell the headache?  Massage, of course!  And while there’s some overlap with the best techniques for each type, let’s list each headache and describe the best treatment below.

The Best Massage for Each Type of Headache


The most painful headache, a migraine makes you want to wear a sleep mask and stuff foam in your ears until you lose all of your six senses.  When medications aren’t enough, bodywork is a healthy alternative.

A migraine is a neurological disease caused by a dysfunction in the sympathetic nervous system, which is involved in the body’s involuntary response to stress or danger.  Massage stimulates the nerve receptors that activate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest and digest system.  The parasympathetic system’s job is in opposition to that of the sympathetic.  It relaxes the body, lowers blood pressure, and brings about an improved sense of wellbeing.

For this reason, the ideal migraine massage will vary from person to person.  Which every modality the patient finds most relaxing, be it Swedish or deep tissue or any other, will encourage the parasympathetic system to overshadow the dysfunctioning sympathetic system.  Rest and digest will jump in the way of fight or flight.

Tension Headaches

These types of headaches tend to stem from tightness in the neck and scalp muscles.  Tight neck and scalp muscles often arise from stress, depression, and anxiety.  And then tension headaches can lead to more stress, depression, and anxiety.  It’s a nasty cycle.

We just talked about the parasympathetic nervous system and how its activation reduces stress.  So, it’s a given that any massage a patient finds relaxing is beneficial for a tension headache.  But a scalp and face massage can be particularly helpful, too.

It’s easy to forget that we have muscles in our skull.  Take a look at the ones on the back, side, and front of the head in the picture below.  When’s the last time you had one or all of them addressed by your massage therapist?

two head drawings showing skull and muscles

It’s probably been a little while if it’s happened ever.

Your most ignored muscles are building up more and more tension over time.  Let your therapist break those adhesions up to offer some relief.  And don’t forget about the sensitive nerve endings all over your scalp.  When your hair follicles get a gentle rub, feel-good chemicals are released and stress leaves the body.

The stress isn’t just hiding in your cranial muscles, though.  Your facial muscles store a lot of stress too, especially if you frown or clench your teeth when stressed.  Facial massage soothes the tight jaw muscles, relaxing the mind, and can address pain-causing pressure points.

Sinus and Allergy Headaches

Both of these headaches can benefit from a lymphatic drainage massage.  Mainly, a lymphatic massage that focuses on the face and lymph nodes in the neck.  A lymphatic massage for sinus and allergy headaches will either start with the face or neck, and the movements will be slow and gentle.  The strokes will end in the lymph nodes located near the mandibular angle.

doctor checking lymph nodes of a patient

Right about there!

Your lymphatic system has a lot to do when you’re feeling sick.  The lymph is doing its best to carry around the pain-causing toxins in your body, but it could use a little push (literally).  Lymph needs to take those waste products to the lymph nodes for neutralization, and the strokes of a massage can guide the lymph right to it.  So, get a lymphatic massage to speed up recovery and tell that headache to get lost.

There’s something important I need to note, though.  If the reason for your headache is contagious, consider a self-massage to do at home.  We don’t want our therapists to get sick!  Watch the video below for a self-lymphatic drainage tutorial!


Cluster Headaches

Oh, boy.  I know I said migraines are the worst type of headache, but a migraine combined with another type of headache sounds debilitating.  Cluster headaches can be caused by… well, nobody’s really sure.  And that makes them all the more contemptible, with their eye pain and nasal congestion among other unpleasantries.  While shorter in duration than a migraine, they have a tendency to recur over a few months or even years.

So, what’s the best massage for a cluster headache?  For this one, it’s a little hard to narrow in on, since the exact cause is unknown.  But that doesn’t mean massage isn’t therapeutic for a cluster headache.  The pain-relieving hormones released by massage will likely offer relief to this type of headache, just like it will with any type of pain.  Just like with migraine massage therapy, it’s probably best to go with the massage the patient finds the most relaxing.

And though massage works wonders on physical pain, acupuncture and chiropractic are becoming more popular for cluster headache treatment.  Try scheduling a massage right before or after an acupuncture or chiropractic session.

Go Get Some Relief!

Really, you deserve it.  Ask which therapists specialize in your chosen treatment and do away with that headache.

Stay happy, healthy, and pain-free!

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.


Diego, Miguel A, and Tiffany Field. “Moderate Pressure Massage Elicits a Parasympathetic Nervous System Response.” The International Journal of Neuroscience, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2009, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19283590/.

Eske, Jamie. “Sinus Massage: Techniques for Pain Relief, Drainage, and More.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 15 June 2020, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/sinus-massage.

“Self-Massages for 4 Different Headaches.” Arapahoe Chiropractic, 1 May 2020, arapahoechiropractic.com/self-massages-for-4-different-headaches/.

“Understanding Cluster Headache.” American Migraine Foundation, 18 Apr. 2019, americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/cluster-headache-2/.

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