Tension Headache

Information on the causes of head pressure and neck pain caused by tension type headaches.

Select a Topic

  1. What are Tension Headaches?
  2. What Causes Tension Headaches?
  3. Diagnosing Tension Headaches
  4. Help for Tension Headaches
  5. More Information on Tension Headaches

What are Tension Headaches?

Tension headaches are the most common type of headaches, accounting for approximately 90 percent of all headaches experienced. The pain experienced is often general and bilateral, meaning that the pain occurs on both sides of the head, and in some cases the pain causes mild pain at the back of the neck and at the base of the skull.

The pain of tension headaches is usually mild to moderate, and often described as having a band squeezing the head, however, in some cases; constant tension headaches may begin to interfere with daily activities. Other symptoms may include fatigue, insomnia, irritability and muscle weakness or pain especially in the scalp, neck and shoulders.

Tension headaches differ between people and while they usually last between 4-6 hours, they can last anywhere between 15min to a week. They can also be classified as episodic or chronic. Episodic headaches are diagnosed when the individual experiences fewer than 15 headaches in a month, while chronic tension headaches will be diagnosed when the individual experiences more than 15 headaches in one month.

What Causes Tension Headaches?

Despite tension headaches being so common, the underlying cause is still not fully understood. It was previously thought that tension headaches were caused by muscle tension around the head and neck. However, while muscle tension can cause a headache, it has subsequently been found that many tension headache sufferers do not have more muscle tension than other people.

Current research suggests that tension headaches are more likely to be associated with a change in brain chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins, as well as the pain pathway within the brain. The types of brain chemical changes in tension headaches also seem to be similar to those experienced in migraines and researchers are now agreeing that the two may be related.

While underlying causes may still be a bit vague, there are a number
of factors which may trigger a tension headache which include:
  • Stress
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Sleep deprivation or changes in sleep routine
  • Fatigue
  • Uncomfortable position and/or bad posture
  • Hunger or irregular eating pattern
  • Eyestrain
  • Caffeine withdrawal
  • Hormonal changes
  • Use of certain medications
  • Over-use of pain relief medications (often used to treat headaches) known as a rebound headache

Diagnosing Tension Headaches

Your doctor will base the diagnosis on a physical examination as well as your medical, family and headache history. It often helps if you can keep a headache journal in which you record the frequency of the headaches, the severity, location and type of pain experienced.

This information will greatly help you doctor in making an accurate diagnosis. If the headaches are severe or unusual in some way, you physician may recommend a number of other tests such as a CT scan, MRI scan or spinal tap.

Help for Tension Headaches

The most common treatments for tension headaches are over-the-counter medication. These include pain-relief medications such as aspirins, ibuprofen and acetaminophen. While these medications can provide fast relief, it’s important to remember that many of them do have side effects, and over-use can lead to re-bound headaches.

More Information on Tension Headaches

How to prevent and treat tension headaches
  • Adopt a healthy life-style which includes a healthy and balanced diet as well as regular physical activity. Regular exercise can help to reduce the frequency of headaches and may even help to relieve the pain of current headaches.
  • Make sure you are getting sufficient sleep ad try stick to a regular sleep routine.
  • Keep a headache journal and in it record the frequency of the headaches as well as the location, severity and type of pain experienced. This can be a useful diagnostic tool for your doctor and it may also help you to identify possible triggers of your headaches.
  • Learn to relax. Practice relaxation techniques and deep breathing to help you manage stress and tension.
  • Avoid tobacco smoke and limit your caffeine intake whenever possible
  • Make sure you adopt a good posture and be aware of putting your body in uncomfortable positions. Work chairs and desks may need to be adapted accordingly.
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