Migraine : Physical Therapy for Chronic Headaches

Milton D. Carrero, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

After more than 20 years of suffering three to five headaches a week, Donna Brown had grown used to waking up in pain.

The Parkland school bus driver suffered through her morning drive with the noise of 50 children in the background. As she drove, she wondered what had caused her headache.

On her route, the South Whitehall woman drove by a billboard announcing Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network's Headache Program, unique for its use of physical therapy as its main component. During one of those mornings in which Brown's head begged for mercy, she decided she would ask her physician for a referral to the program.

It was there that she learned the underlining cause of most of her chronic headaches: bad posture. Dr. Ali Shah, a medicine and rehabilitation physician, told Brown that the pain originated in her neck and spine. With a series of exercises and adjustments, Shah assured her, Brown eventually would be able to manage the headaches on her own.

"I didn't think it would work," Brown says. "This lady must be insane."

Brown had little to lose. By then she had gone through myriad treatments, including an uncomfortable lumbar puncture as doctors tried to diagnose her. Nothing had helped. Shah assured her that the program's main goal was to help her control her pain without depending on medication.

The offer enticed Brown, who likes to avoid strong medicines that can cause drowsiness or affect her driving ability. She gave the program a try.

"I went with an open mind and did what she asked me to do," Brown says. The headaches left after seven sessions.

Current research suggests that many of the headaches that plague people like Brown have a mechanical origin, often caused by tension in the neck and spine. The program, available at 14 Good Shepherd outpatient locations, teaches patients a series of exercises and adjustments that they can use at home to manage chronic headaches.

It is a form of treatment that is often ignored, Brown's physical therapist Alicia Shoup says, eclipsed by the dominance of medication. While it is not possible in every case, many patients are able to leave their pain medications after going through the program.

Shoup spent more than an hour observing Brown's posture. She examined her movement and flexibility as well as the alignment of her head and neck. Shoup then tailored a regimen for Brown that she does for 10 minutes three times a day.

"I cannot tell you how this changed my life," Brown says. "I always had a headache, now to go six weeks without even one ..."

The change is so significant that Brown's eyes well with tears as she describes the program's impact on her daily activities.

Brown says she previously limited social outings for fear of triggering the next headache. That's no longer the case.

Through a mix of neck retractions and modification exercises, Brown became aware of her posture and the alignment problems that triggered her chronic headaches. She learned to watch her spine and neck during the most basic and repetitive activities, from driving to watching television. She even adjusted her glasses based on Shoup's advice.

Brown also learned what Shoup calls "sleep posture hygiene." She now avoids sleeping on her stomach, which forces her to turn her head to one side for most of the night.

"It's like walking around with the neck like that for eight hours a day," Shoup says.

Brown could not believe that her complicated problem could have such a simple solution. She no longer relies on pain medication, most of which proved inefficient. She can counteract headaches as they're starting with just her hands and the meticulous movement of her head.

"It's giving you the skills," Brown says, "the knowledge and the tools."




-- When standing: Walk like you have a book on your head. Your ears should be in alingment with the shoulders, the shoulders with the hips and hips with the ankles.

-- When sitting: Bring your buttocks all the way back in the chair and place a pillow in between the chair and your back for support.

-- When sleeping: Do not sleep on your stomach. Having your head to the side for the whole night can lead to head, neck and back pain.

-- When reading: Place one or two pillows on your lap, angle the reading material at the level of the eyes.

--Alicia Shoup, physical therapist

(c)2013 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

Visit The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) at www.mcall.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services
Search Site