Massage may be a useful complementary therapy for migraine for some people. It cannot cure the condition, but it may help to reduce the symptoms or frequency of migraine headaches.
Massage can also promote relaxation, which may help a person manage a migraine episode.
In this article, we will explore massage for migraine, including whether it helps, which type works best, and how to try self-massage at home.
Some small studies suggest that massage can help with migraine. For example, a 2017 pilot study suggests massage may help with reducing:
- the intensity of migraine symptoms
- the frequency or duration of episodes
- exposure to certain migraine triggers, such as stress or neck pain
However, research into this approach is still in its early stages. There have been no large-scale studies testing massage as a migraine treatment either on its own or in combination with other treatments.
Some studies have found that various types of massage could be beneficial for people with migraine. However, no study has yet compared all of the types to determine which one is the best.
Lymph is a fluid that circulates throughout the lymphatic system. Its job is to transport white blood cells around the body and to drain waste. Lymphatic drainage involves massaging the skin to increase lymph flow.
An older 2016 study of 64 people with migraine compared the effects of traditional massage, lymphatic drainage, and no treatment at all. Participants receiving treatments had massages over the course of 8 weeks, followed by a 4-week observation period.
The researchers found that both massage types reduced the frequency of migraines per month, but that lymphatic drainage was the most effective.
Gua sha is a Chinese form of massage that uses a flat, curved tool to massage the contours of the face.
However, gua sha was more effective than other massage types. People reported 42% efficacy with standard massage, but 50% with gua sha. This suggests that gua sha in particular may have pain-relieving benefits.
People interested in trying gua sha should find a therapist who is specialized in gua sha therapy as there are risks involved in this treatment.
A small pilot study of 48 females aged between 33 and 58 compared the effects of reflexology with segmental massage. Reflexology is an alternative therapy that uses gentle massage of the feet or hands to treat conditions in other parts of the body, while segmental massage is another technique that also focuses on reflexes.
Both groups experienced significant improvements in the frequency, intensity, and duration of migraine episodes in comparison with baseline levels. However, the reflexology group saw better results.
This was a small study, and there was no control or placebo group. More research is necessary to confirm if reflexology is effective for migraine.
Massage and mobilization
Cervical mobilization is a technique that aims to treat neck pain. It involves manual manipulation of the neck, using movements that are within the person’s range of motion.
A small 2022 study examined whether massage alone, or massage combined with mobilization, could help improve the symptoms of migraine. Participants either received one therapy or both, four times per week, for 4 weeks.
The authors found that both approaches resulted in a reduction in self-reported symptoms, but that massage with cervical mobilization was more effective.
However, this study had a single blind design. This means that the researchers knew which participants were receiving which treatments. This poses a higher risk for bias when compared to double blind studies.
People interested in cervical mobilization should make sure to find a clinician who is experienced and certified with this type of specialized massage.
This pressure point massage may help with migraine symptoms. According to Rachel Richards, a New York State Licensed and Board Certified massage therapist, “the best time to do this little massage […] is when you feel that trigger coming on.”
With all of these techniques, the pressure should be firm but never painful. To begin, find a comfortable place to sit, take a few deep breaths, and relax the shoulders. Follow the instructions in the video below.
There are other things people can try to improve how effective massage is for their symptoms. They include:
- chilled massage tools, such as face rollers
- cold stones, which a person can use in a similar way to hot stones
- a cooling eye mask or headband after the massage
Aromatherapy massage involves diluting essential oils, which are highly concentrated plant extracts, into a carrier oil. A person then uses this to massage the skin.
A 2021 review found that certain essential oils can help relieve migraine symptoms. However, it is important to always check with a doctor before using them. Essential oils are not safe for everyone.
Manual or physiotherapy
Some studies have found a combination of massage and manual therapy to be helpful for migraine. People can learn how to do manual exercises to ease migraine pain, or other types of pain, from a physical therapist.
People who want to try professional massage for migraine should look for qualified therapists who have:
- the necessary licenses and accreditation to practice massage
- positive reviews on review websites or social media
- experience with the style of massage the person wants to try
- experience or specialist training treating people with migraine
A doctor may be able to provide recommendations for a massage therapist in the local area.
Visit a national registry for massage therapists at the American Massage Therapist Association website.
Limited evidence suggests that massage may help with migraine. People may find it helps reduce the intensity, duration, and frequency of their symptoms. However, more high quality research is necessary to prove it works and to determine which types of massage work best.
People can try self-massage at home, or they can look for a qualified massage therapist. A professional may be able to teach a person self-massage techniques that they can use at any time. Additional techniques, such as cold therapy, may provide further pain relief during episodes.