Thursday 24th June, 2021

What trigger points cause headaches

Man with headaches
We will show you the trigger points that cause these


The results of several clinical trials show that common tension headaches are typically caused by trigger points in the following muscles: upper trapezius and sub-occipital muscle (most common, plus the temporalis, SCM, splenius capitus and levator scapulae muscles. In this article we will discuss where those trigger points are, what they are and how they can be treated.

Common tension headaches

The headaches discussed are chronic tension type headaches. In any one year 38% of people are said to suffer from these (1)⁠. They are not specific headaches such as migraines or cluster headaches.


Trigger points
What the trials tell us
Self treatment for headache causing trigger points

Trigger point chart
The pain referred by trigger points

Trigger points

What are trigger points

Trigger points are those tender lumps in muscles that therapists find. We have a lot more information about what these are and what they do in our separate article trigger point basics.

Trigger points refer pain

Just like when you have pain down your left arm when you have a heart attack, trigger points commonly refer pain away from the actual lump. Scientists have mapped these referral patterns. This information is given on trigger point charts, commonly seen in professional offices. All the muscles discussed in this article commonly refer pain to the head.

Acupressure and other pressure points

There are many systems of points that are said to improve health and relieve pain. Most of these points are the same. What has happened is that they have been discovered independently and labelled differently (2)⁠ . “Trigger points” comes with more modern scientific research and explanations.

Diagram of trigger points causing headaches

What the trials tell us

Common trigger points

We have marked the common trigger points on this diagram and listed the results in the table below. The most common sites for trigger points causing common tension headaches were the upper trapezius and sub occipital muscles. People with headaches tend to have large numbers of trigger points in these muscles. When the scientists pressed on these trigger points it caused the headache pain

The two trials where trigger points were treated provided very good results

Both trials where trigger points were treated produced excellent results. Further, they both used a simple procedure that with proper instructions can easily be self applied. We will discuss this below.

Trigger points causing headaches: clinical trial results

NOTE: You may need to scroll the table below left/right for more information



Extra notes

Treatment results


30/31 had trigger points in UT, 21/31 had trigger points in SO

Treatment gave significant improvement, and could be self administered



Compared with non headache sufferers, head ache sufferers had many more trigger points. Pressing on these trigger points reproduces the headaches




Head ache sufferers had ave. 4.9 trigger points, non sufferers had 0.7




Number and duration of headaches reduced dramatically

UT= Upper trapezius muscles
SO= Sub-occipital muscles
TEMP= Temporalis muscles
SCM= Sterncleidomastoid muscles
SC= Splenius Capitus muscles
LS= Levator Scapulae muscles

Self treatment for headache causing trigger points

In this section we will share with you the simple way trigger points were treated in the trials, plus a very effective alternative.

NOTE: we have since made a much more comprehensive guide to treatment.

Professional advice

We recommend that you first consult a professional. You need to make sure that the headaches are chronic tension headaches, not something else. You also need to discuss any therapy to your neck with someone such as a Chiropractor, Osteopath or Physiotherapist.

Treatment options

Trigger point therapy: sub occipital pressure
Trigger point therapy using pressure technique

Pressure techniques

In both trials researchers used a simple pressure technique. The trigger points were found by examining for the lumps using flat finger tips. When the trigger points were found moderate painful pressure was applied for up to 90 seconds until the pain subsided. We show an affective variation of this on our Youtube video on massaging forearm muscles. Please discuss this with a professional though.

Self massage allows the benefits of quality massage at home for little cost

Vibration massagers

As we discuss in our article The scientifically proven effects of vibration massage- with clinical applications vibrations delivered by an effective massager penetrate better than manual massage and have excellent benefits. Further, it's application does not require and special massage skill. Therefore, if you follow the correct simple procedure and use an effective machine it should provide excellent benefits. In the case of the trigger points causing headaches, vibration massage would be excellent for larger muscles such as the upper trapezius. With care and the proper advice it would be excellent for muscles over the spine. It would not be suitable for thin muscles over the skull, like Temporalis.
To find out more about this therapy please see:
How to choose an effective massager
Vibration massage usage guide
Check out our economical, easy to use professional standard machines: the General Purpose Massager or our Ultimate Quad Head Massager


DrGraeme massagers were originally built by Dr Graeme for use in his clinic, and to prescribe to his patients for additional self use at home. Now these are used by colleagues and other professionals for similar purposes. If you are a professional and wish to know more about this therapy, or possibly get a sample massager to trial please check out our practitioner page.


  1. Doraisamy K&, Gnanamuthu. Chronic Tension Type Headache and the Impact of Myofascial Trigger Point Release in the Short Term Relief of Headache. Glob J Health Sci. 2010;2(2):238–44.
  2. Melzack R, Stillwell DM, Fox EJ. Trigger points and acupuncture points for pain: Correlations and implications. Pain. 1977;3(1):3–23.
  3. Fernández-de-las-Peñas C, Ge HY, Arendt-Nielsen L, Cuadrado ML, Pareja JA. Referred pain from trapezius muscle trigger points shares similar characteristics with chronic tension type headache. Eur J Pain. 2007;11(4):475–82.
  4. Chatchawan U, Thongbuang S, Yamauchi J. Characteristics and distributions of myofascial trigger points in individuals with chronic tension-type headaches. 2019;306–9.
  5. Quinn C, Chandler C, Moraska A. Massage therapy and frequency of chronic tension headaches. Am J Public Health. 2002;92(10):1657–61.

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Dr Graeme

About Dr Graeme

Several years ago Dr Graeme, a Chiropractor practicing in Victoria, Australia was looking for a serious hand held massager his patients could use at home to get the extra quality massage they needed. The ones he found in the shops and on-line for home use looked nice but were not serious, and... read more

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