Manual Therapies for Primary Chronic Headaches: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials

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SOURCE:   J Headache Pain. 2014 (Oct 2); 15: 67 ~ FULL TEXT

Aleksander Chaibi and Michael Bjørn Russell

Head and Neck Research Group,
Research Centre, Akershus University Hospital,
1478 Lørenskog, Oslo, Norway.

This is to our knowledge the first systematic review regarding the efficacy of manual therapy randomized clinical trials (RCT) for primary chronic headaches. A comprehensive English literature search on CINHAL, Cochrane, Medline, Ovid and PubMed identified 6 RCTs all investigating chronic tension-type headache (CTTH). One study applied massage therapy and five studies applied physiotherapy. Four studies were considered to be of good methodological quality by the PEDro scale. All studies were pragmatic or used no treatment as a control group, and only two studies avoided co-intervention, which may lead to possible bias and makes interpretation of the results more difficult. The RCTs suggest that massage and physiotherapy are effective treatment options in the management of chronic tension-type headache (CTTH).

One of the RCTs showed that physiotherapy reduced headache frequency and intensity statistical significant better than usual care by the general practitioner. The efficacy of physiotherapy at post-treatment and at 6 months follow-up equals the efficacy of tricyclic antidepressants. Effect size of physiotherapy was up to 0.62. Future manual therapy RCTs are requested addressing the efficacy in chronic migraine with and without medication overuse. Future RCTs on headache should adhere to the International Headache Society’s guidelines for clinical trials, i.e., frequency as primary end-point, while duration and intensity should be secondary end-point, avoid co-intervention, includes sufficient sample size and follow-up period for at least 6 months.

KEYWORDS:   Randomized clinical trials, Primary chronic headache, Manual therapies, Massage, Physiotherapy, Chiropractic


From the FULL TEXT Article:


Primary chronic headaches i.e. chronic migraine (CM), chronic tension-type headache (CTTH) and chronic cluster headache has significant health, economic and social costs. About 3% of the general population suffers from chronic headache with female predominance [1]. The International Classification of Headache Disorders III β (ICDH–III β) defines CM as ≥15 headache days/month for at least 3 months with features of migraine in ≥8 days/month, CTTH is defined as on average ≥15 days/month with tension-type headache for at least 3 months, and chronic cluster headache as attacks at least every other day for more than 1 year without remission, or with remissions lasting <1 month [2].

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About 80% consult their primary physician for primary chronic headache [3], and pharmacological management is considered first line of treatment. However, the risk is that it may cause overuse of acute headache medication due to frequent headache attacks. 47% of those with primary chronic headache in the general Norwegian population overused acute headache medication [1, 4]. Considering the high use of acute medication, both prophylactic medication and non-pharmacological management should therefore be considered in the management [5, 6]. Prophylactic medication is used only by 3% in the general Norwegian population, while 52% have tried physiotherapy and 28% have tried chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy [3]. Non-pharmacological management has furthermore the advantage of few and usually minor transient adverse events and no pharmacological interaction/adverse event [7].

Previous systematic reviews have focused on RCTs for tension-type headache, migraine and/or cervicogenic headache, but not on efficacy on primary chronic headache [5, 6, 8–11]. Manual therapy is a physical treatment used by physiotherapists, chiropractors, osteopaths and other practitioners to treat musculoskeletal pain and disability, and includes massage therapy, joint mobilization and manipulation [12].

This is to our knowledge the first systematic review assessing the efficacy of manual therapy randomized controlled trials (RCT) for primary chronic headache using headache frequency as primary end-point and headache duration and intensity as secondary end-points.

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