BACKGROUND: Despite the expansion of conventional medical treatments for headache, many sufferers of common recurrent headache disorders seek help outside of medical settings. The aim of this paper is to evaluate research studies on the prevalence of patient use of manual therapies for the treatment of headache and the key factors associated with this patient population. METHODS: This critical review of the peer-reviewed literature identified 35 papers reporting findings from new empirical research regarding the prevalence, profiles, motivations, communication and self-reported effectiveness of manual therapy use amongst those with headache disorders. RESULTS: While available data was limited and studies had considerable methodological limitations, the use of manual therapy appears to be the most common non-medical treatment utilized for the management of common recurrent headaches. The most common reason for choosing this type of treatment was seeking pain relief. While a high percentage of these patients likely continue with concurrent medical care, around half may not be disclosing the use of this treatment to their medical doctor. CONCLUSIONS: There is a need for more rigorous public health and health services research in order to assess the role, safety, utilization and financial costs associated with manual therapy treatment for headache. Primary healthcare providers should be mindful of the use of this highly popular approach to headache management in order to help facilitate safe, effective and coordinated care.