Headaches, Migraines, and Physical Therapy – Can It Really Help?

Did you know that headaches impact HALF of the adult population worldwide?  According to the World Health Organization, around 50% of people experience at least 1 headache a year. An estimated 12% of people globally experience migraines, making it the 3rd most prevalent illness and 6th most disabling in the world.

So, what IS a headache?

Headaches are broadly defined as pain located in the head, but they come in many shapes and forms. Headaches can vary in intensity, frequency, and symptom presentation. While headaches often stem from local head and neck structures (muscle, joint, and nerve), they can also be associated with dehydration, changes in blood sugar, food sensitivities, or even stroke.

More often than not, headaches are not a high risk condition – but that doesn’t make them any less debilitating. Individuals who suffer from headaches often find that pain and symptoms interfere with daily activities including work, daily chores, and recreational activities.

Common Types of Headaches

Tension headaches are described as a dull aching in the head (often near the temples, forehead, and/or base of the skull). They are often accompanied by muscular soreness and stiffness in the head, neck, and shoulders. Pain can be bilateral or on both sides of the head, and can be exacerbated by stress. Symptoms are believed to generate from muscular sensitivity, trigger points, and increased central sensitivity.

Cervicogenic headaches stem specifically from neck related structures, especially the small joints along the spine called facet joints. These joints have specific referral patterns for pain and can present as symptoms in the back of the head and neck, behind the eyes, and in the temples. Pain can be one sided or on both sides, but is often accompanied by neck pain and easily triggered with certain movements or sustained postures.

Migraines are considered a neurological event, and often present with a more intense headache. They are often (but not always) accompanied by other symptoms including sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and/or the presence of an aura. An aura is a visual disturbance that can present as blurry lines or floaters, blind spots, or flashes of light. Migraines are often described as pulsing, are typically one sided, and can last hours to days. They are linked to sensitivity of neural structures in the head and neck, specifically the trigeminal nerve (which is associated with sensation of the face, jaw function, the upper neck, and parts of the brain).

What can physical therapy do to help?

Headaches, especially migraines, are often poorly managed with a large dependency on pharmacological interventions. But there may be another treatment option! Physical therapy can be an effective treatment (or part of treatment) for tension headaches, cervicogenic headaches, and migraines.

Physical therapists are well equipped to treat headache conditions because we are well versed in the underlying anatomy, can identify what structures are contributing to symptoms, and will create an individualized treatment plan specific to YOUR presentation and needs.

What should I expect at physical therapy?

A thorough subjective examination, or discussion, of your current symptoms

Our goal is to identify what type of headache you are experiencing, to help guide our treatments. This will include:

  • the nature of your headaches – type of pain/symptoms, frequency, duration, severity, changing or consistent symptoms, etc.
  • any known triggers or aggravating activities as well as what provides symptom relief
  • functional limitations/activities limited by your symptoms
  • prior medical history
  • other potential contributing factors/triggers including diet and food sensitivities, dehydration, sleep, stress (and stress management), eye strain/vision, neck or jaw pain or injury

A physical examination to help identify what structures are contributing to your pain

With a better understanding of the anatomy involved, we can individualize your treatment approach. The examination will include:

  • assessment of the head, neck, shoulders, and jaw/TMJ (temporomandibular joint) including range of motion, strength, positioning, and overall sensitivity

  • assessment of posture, breathing, and movement mechanics

A collaborative discussion of appropriate treatment and plan of action

Education is key! We will review ways to manage and treat symptoms moving forward. This may include:

  • manual therapy (mobilization or manipulation of muscles and joints) to decrease pain/sensitivity and improve mobility
  • exercises – for strength, flexibility and improved ROM (range of motion), stability, improved control, and/or improved posture
  • behavior modifications and strategies for symptom management (including potential work ergonomics, lifting strategies, sleep position, etc)
  • referral to another healthcare provider if appropriate (physician, neurologist, etc.)

If you are experiencing headaches, please contact us at Evolve Physical Therapy for an evaluation today!


Melisa Abesa is a California transplant who has come to love the Pacific Northwest. Since graduating with her Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California in 2014, she has practiced in the Portland/Salem area. She is a huge advocate for patient empowerment, individualized care, and a holistic approach to health and wellness.

As a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy, she enjoys working with a large variety of orthopedic and sports related conditions, with special interests including runners, headache treatments, post-operative care, and adolescent athletes. 


Evolve Physical Therapy Wins Rookie of the Year Award

Evolve Physical Therapy was just featured in the Sherwood Gazette.  

The article discusses our recent Sherwood Area Chamber of Commerce award for business Rookie of the Year.

As an independently and locally owned small business, we are excited about our future in Sherwood. We will continue our commitment to support the community through our volunteer and outreach efforts, as well as our sponsorships to local events, teams, and clubs.


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Thank you to our families for all your love, support, and belief in our vision.

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Evolve Physical Therapy was created as a response to the growing trend of declining quality in health care delivery. We are different. You will always receive the highest quality of care by working with an experienced, licensed physical therapist. No techs. No aides. No assistants. No double booking. https://www.ptevolve.com


Does Your Child Experience Heel Pain When They Run?

Running is supposed to be an enjoyable experience for children of all ages.  The thrill of running faster and faster is exhilarating and rewarding.  However, what happens when that joy of running is replaced with the pain of running?  Could it be Sever’s disease?

Are You Familiar With This Scenario?

Your child is hobbling, limping, and grimacing in pain during or after running.  And in some instances, they are reduced to tears during or after running.  To overstate the obvious, this should not happen.  Children should not experience heel pain when running or jumping.  Avoiding putting full body weight on one leg when walking, standing, or going up and down stairs are strong indicators that your child is experiencing symptoms that are not normal.

Sever's Disease

Heel pain can be used to describe a variety of different diagnoses (Sever’s disease, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, Achilles tendonopathy, or retrocalcaneal bursitis)1.  The focus of this blog will be discussing Sever’s disease.

What Is Sever’s Disease?

Sever’s disease, also known as calcaneal apophysitis, is the result of repetitive microtrauma to the growth plate (apophysis) of the heel (calcaneus).  Because children are still growing the growth plate is considered “open”.  During running the Achilles tendon pulls at the growth plate. If the repetitive stress is too great from running, the area where the Achilles tendon attaches to the heel, as well as the growth plate becomes inflamed and painful.  The typical occurrence of Sever’s disease is with children between the ages of 7 to 15 years.

severs disease

First Steps

It is important to improve your understanding of the nature of the child’s symptoms.  These questions will help gather essential information:

  • Where is their pain?
    • Determine the location of their pain (back of the heel, bottom of the heel, arch of the foot)
  • Is there tenderness when the painful area is touched?
  • Does their pain worsen with activity?
  • Are they having difficulty walking/running?
  • Do you notice an usual pattern when walking/running (e.g., limp)?
  • When did their symptoms start?
  • Are their symptoms worsening?
  • Was there a recent growth spurt?
  • Was there a recent and dramatic increase in their activity (running and jumping)?
  • Has a new sport season begun?
  • Are their shoes older than 6 months?
  • Was there another recent (less than 2 months) injury to either leg?

If your child follows a pattern of symptoms based on pain location (heel), worsening symptoms, altered walking or running, new sports season, tenderness, recent growth spurt, and increased activity there is a concern for Sever’s disease.  This does not mean that a season is lost.  Early treatment is the key.  The earlier the treatment is initiated the sooner the symptoms will go away.

Initial Treatment

The most basic treatment options for Sever’s disease include:

  • Rest from activities that aggravate symptoms
  • Ice the painful area (wrapped in a towel) for 15 minutes or apply an ice massage for 5 minutes
  • Stretching – pain-free
  • Strengthening for the leg – pain-free
  • Balance exercises – pain-free


The above conservative initial treatment should be effective at decreasing symptoms within 7 to 10 days.  However, if the pain persists you should seek medical attention (medical professional).  Remember early treatment is essential to avoid the risk of missing an entire season. You need to avoid the “no pain, no gain” mindset – this will only make the problem worse.

A thorough evaluation by a medical professional includes a detailed patient history and a specific survey for the lower body.  The evaluation is crucial to determine what the actual cause of the injury is and helps develop the treatment plan. 


You should also expect an advanced evaluation to also include:

  • Comprehensive lower body flexibility testing
  • Comprehensive lower body strength testing
  • Hands-on assessment for range of motion and joint mobility
  • Hands-on assessment of the painful area(s)
  • Movement analysis with basic movements (squatting, stepping, walking)
    • If applicable – high-speed video analysis with running
  • Discussion and recommendations for age-appropriate training and avoiding/preventing overuse
  • A detailed home exercise program
  • Explanation of clinical findings
  • Anticipated recovery period based measurable goals

heel palpation


Successful recovery from injuries is criterion-based, not time-based. If you are a sports fan you will appreciate the following example because you have heard it countless times.  An elite, professional athlete does not directly return from injury to competition based on a time frame.  They have to pass a collection of tests in order to be cleared for practice and light drills, then another collection of tests to increase the intensity of practice.  This pattern continues until they are able to practice at near game conditions, then the athlete is cleared to return to play.

Taking more than 10 to 14 days off from activity to rest while recovering from Sever’s disease requires a plan.  Immediately returning to the same level of training intensity following the period of rest is a recipe for disaster.  This accounts for the high rate of re-aggravation of symptoms and where a season is lost.  It is more safe and effective to determine return to play (running) through a systematic and gradual workout progression. 

what can i do


Youth athletes will be frustrated based on their inability to practice and compete.  In order to shorten the recovery period, it is important that the youth athlete is active.  The crucial point is that the activity is PAIN-FREE.  Once the initial painful symptoms have decreased specific exercises need to be introduced to address their weakness, muscle tightness, coordination, etc.  After these exercises have been mastered (and pain-free) then onto the next phase of their recovery.  This is the basic principle of the criterion-based system.  Once the criteria have been met, the next phase is introduced.  Each individual navigates the phases at different speeds.  The rate of return to play from Sever’s disease varies based on the length of symptoms, the severity of aggravation, strength, etc.

Sever's disease running

Properly managed Sever’s disease can be treated efficiently provided you are pro-active based on your newfound awareness and education related to this injury.  If you have concerns or questions talk to a coach or medical professional who has experience with youth athletes.

  1. Malanga GA, Ramirez-Del Toro JA. Common injuries of the foot and ankle in the child and adolescent athlete. Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am. 2008; 19:347-371.

Matt Weissbach is originally from Canada, and graduated from Queen’s University (2002) and the University of St. Augustine (2017).  He has over 16 years of working as a physical therapist, coach, teacher, and consultant.  Currently, he is co-owner of Evolve Physical Therapy in Sherwood, Oregon.

Matt is a United States of America Track and Field (USATF) Level 1 Coach and has spoken at track and field coaches clinics, universities, and international conferences on running, footwear, long-term athlete development, and ACL rehabilitation.