Headaches are a either a symptom of an underlying health condition (secondary headache) or just occur, but not caused by illness or injury (primary headache). Pain around the face, head or neck is classed as a headache. Even though they are a common cause of pain, most headaches are not serious. Many people experience at least one during their life.

Headaches are a common complaint; however, one of the most complicated to treat. In Australia:

  • 7 milliontension-type headache sufferers (36% men and 42% women)
  • 9 millionAustralians experience migraine*
  • 23% of households with at least one migraine sufferer
  • Migraine prevalence increases from 12-40 years and declines thereafter
  • Almost all people with migraines experience reductions in social activities and work capacity
  • 60% of people with tension-type headache experience reductions in social activities and work capacity
  • direct and indirect costs of migraine – $35.7 billion per annum*

*Migraine in Australia, Deloitte Access Economics Report, 2018.

Headache Types

Primary headaches

Primary headaches are the most common and include tension headaches, migraine and cluster headaches. Primary headaches can be caused by:

  • dehydration
  • drinking too much alcohol or eating certain foods
  • eye strain or squinting
  • lack of sleep
  • poor posture
  • skipping a meal
  • stress

Sometimes there is no obvious cause.

Secondary headaches

Secondary headaches have a separate cause, such as illness or general medical condition affecting the brain and its coverings.

  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Head injuryor concussion
  • Hormones – changes due the contraceptive pill, menopause and pregnancy can trigger headaches
  • Side effect of medication, such as painkillers
  • Unwell – cold, sinusitis, flu or allergic reaction

Allied health practitioners such as osteopaths and myotherapists can help with several of the mechanical causes of headache.


Signs a headache can be treated by an allied health practitioner if they occur with a headache-type pain:

  • Head pain when neck remains in same position for some time
  • Mild sickness in stomach
  • Mild sensitivity to light or noise and visual changes
  • Muscle aches – particularly around the neck, shoulders and jaw areas
  • Sudden movement of neck
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Tiredness, irritability, trouble focusing


  • Thorough case history – we want to know the what, where, why, how
  • Range of Motion Testing
  • Simple neurological/orthopaedic testing
  • Muscle assessment

This allows possible diagnosis of the type of headache and if a referral is necessary. Osteopaths are trained to recognise differences between a potentially serious cause and benign cause of headaches.

Treatment (dependent on cause)

  • Management or removal of triggers – a headache diary can be a simple way of assessing patterns when a headache occurs. This makes it easier to remove aggravating factors.
  • Hands-on manual therapy such as soft tissue massage and gentle movement
  • Exercises and stretches
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Referral to GP for better management options or further investigation if outside an allied health professional’s expertise
  • Communication with other health team members such as doctors, personal trainer, other therapists

Seek immediate medical attention if experience headache and any of the following:

  • altered speech
  • blinding headache that appears suddenly and worsens
  • bleeding or fluid from nose or ears
  • confusion or memory loss
  • drowsiness
  • dizziness
  • eye pain – intense
  • fever
  • jaw pain when chewing
  • nausea or vomiting
  • numbness or tingling
  • rash
  • scalp soreness
  • severe head injury
  • stiff neck
  • sudden headache when coughing, laughing, sneezing or moving
  • visual disturbances
  • weakness, or trouble walking

Learn more about this condition:

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