Headaches and migraines can affect all of the population. Based on overseas research, it is estimated by the Headaches Australia Organisation that there are up to seven million tension-type headache sufferers (36% for men and 42% for women) and up to three million migraine sufferers in Australia. Headaches and migraines can affect your home life, social life and work life.

Tension Headaches

A headache appears as pain in the head, in or around the eyes or ears and behind the back of the head. There are many different types of headaches described by health professionals but research is beginning to suggest they might be caused in similar ways. There is significant clinical evidence and research to confirm that many headaches arise from tight muscles and stiff joints of the upper neck. These headaches are known as tension headaches or cervicogenic headaches.

A tension headache is thought to be due to muscle tightness in the scalp, forehead and the back of the neck as well as stiff joints of the upper neck, resulting in referred pain into the head.

This can be triggered by:

  • physical or emotional stress
  • muscle tension of the upper neck
  • malalignments of the neck joints
  • fatigue and cold
  • poor sitting posture with a poked chin neck position
  • previous spinal injury such as a whiplash injury in a motor vehicle accident

Tension headache symptoms may include:

  • Dull and persistent pain that may vary in intensity (mild to moderate) and is usually felt on both sides of the head or neck (some however experience jabs of sudden pain in the head)
  • A constant, tight, heavy or pressing sensation on or around the head
  • Tautness and tenderness of the scalp, neck and shoulder muscles
  • Neck movements (active or passive) restricted by muscular stiffness and discomfort
  • Ache in the upper back
  • Recurrent and episodic pain (often in association with stress)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Disturbed sleep patterns

Migraine Headaches

Migraine headaches are described as a recurrent throbbing headache that typically affects one side of the head and is often accompanied by nausea and disturbed vision. Migraine sufferers can also be extremely sensitive to light and sound.

Migraine can be triggered by many factors including:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Preservatives in food
  • Hormonal changes
  • Stress
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Perfumes
  • Smoking
  • Tight muscles and stiff joints of the upper neck

Symptoms of Migraine Headaches

Along with a headache, migraine sufferers may also experience:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to bright lights
  • Sensitivity to loud music and blurred vision.
  • An aura or visual disturbances such as flashes, splotches, zigzags, or shimmering coloured lights surrounding a blind spot

Is Your Neck the Cause?

Your headache or migraine could be caused by tight neck muscles or neck stiffness. This may be caused by a poor standing and sitting posture as well as sleeping positions. Use the checklist below to help you to determine the root cause of your headache or neck pain.


  • Has your doctor cleared you of any other factors that may be contributing to your headache?
  • Does your neck pain radiate from the back to the front of your head?
  • Do you have pain between your shoulder blades?
  • Is your headache worsened by neck movement?
  • Is your headache worsened by keeping your neck in the one position for long periods (driving, watching TV or computer use)?
  • Does your headache worsen with a poor sitting posture with your chin poked forward?
  • Can your headache be eased by pressure at the base of your skull?
  • Is this type of headache not always relieved by medication?
  • Do you have a long history of neck pain and headache?

If you answered yes to some of these questions, then you may need to see a Physiotherapist to give you a more accurate diagnosis.

What Can Help?

  • Physiotherapy – Physiotherapy can be a very effective and natural treatment for headache and migraine sufferers.
  • Ice Packs – Most people reach for a hot pack for their headache or migraine, but cold packs can sometimes be more effective. A cold pack or ice wrapped in a towel/pillow slip can help reduce your headache or migraine symptoms. Alternating between hot and cold may also be helpful.
  • Relaxation Techniques – Massage can help ease any neck and shoulder spasms that may be directly or indirectly causing your headache.

How Can Physio Help?

Physiotherapy can be a very effective treatment for headache and migraine sufferers by providing quick relief. Physiotherapy can also provide you with an accurate and professional diagnosis about the cause of your headache or migraine with a treatment plan to help prevent future migraines and headaches.

In most cases, physiotherapy alone offers an effective solution for tension headaches and migraines in these ways:

  • Correct diagnosis Establish a correct diagnosis to direct the most effective care to your headache pain.
  • Improving neck mobility Using hands on therapy techniques will improve upper neck joint mobility and muscle flexibility.
  • Improving your posture Your headaches and migraines can be improved by improving your posture. Poor posture can lead to strain on your back and neck muscles possibly leading to headaches and migraine.
  • Pillow assessment A cervical pillow assessment can help ensure that you have the proper pillow to obtain an optimal neck position during sleeping.
  • Workstation/work desk setup Sitting incorrectly at your desks, having the computer screen at an incorrect height and sitting for long periods is detrimental to your overall health and could be one of the leading causes of headaches and migraines
  • Strengthening program An exercise program can be prescribed to improve the strength and coordination of your deep neck stabilisers and upper back muscles, which are important for preventing re-injury.
  • The Watson Headache Approach – A Physiotherapist trained in The Watson Headache Approach can use manual, hands on therapy to identify and manage relevant disorders in the upper cervical spine. Trained and certified Watson Headache Practitioners can use their expert training and experience to treat your headache and underlying neck pain. This approach has the potential to offer immediate relief from your headaches and improve your quality of life.


Sandgate Physical Health Clinic

Our Physiotherapists have gained a strong reputation in the Sandgate Community as the go-to clinic for headache treatment. Many of our Physiotherapists have studied The Watson Headache Approach with our Senior Physiotherapist Trina Morris successfully completing the Level 3 Certification in 2014 making her one of the first Physiotherapists in Brisbane able to use the title “Watson Headache Practitioner”. Trina has a passion for improving her patient’s quality of life using these techniques.

If you suffer from headaches or migraines make an appointment with an SPHC physiotherapist who will be able to work with you to prescribe the best treatment program to immediately reduce and work to resolve your future discomfort.