Tension headaches are best described as a pressing or tightening pain, occurring on both sides of the head. These can range from mild to severe pain and have a duration up to several hours. Also known as stress headaches, tension headaches are very common - in fact, it's estimated that up to 70 percent of adults will have a tension headache in the next year. There are many causes of a tension headache, and the treatments often center around fixing those causes. Symptoms of a tension headache are fairly straightforward and easily identifiable by your physician. These include the type of pain - throbbing or sharp - and the location - around the head like a helmet or in a certain location.
Tension headaches can be described as either episodic or chronic. Episodic headaches are infrequent - between one and seven days per month, with a duration of 30 minutes to 4 days. These headaches are typically linked to an identifiable cause and don't occur in a regular pattern. Chronic tension headaches occur at least 15 days per month and may happen consistently for more than three months. They may be accompanied by mild nausea or either sensitivity to light or sound. The chronic headaches may last for hours and then fade, or the pain may be continuous. The difference between the two is the frequency and consistency that patients experience headaches, especially with accompanying sensitivities.
Both physical and emotional stress can wear down your body, leading to painful tension headaches. If you've experienced an injury, or if you're recovering from another physical ailment, tension headaches accompany the healing. This is thought to be part of the body's response to the stress of fighting off an infection or healing a muscle injury. Rest and relaxation is the best treatment. Emotional stress may cause tension headaches. When we are upset, sad, or angry, our emotions may manifest in physical pain and tension. Taking deep breaths, using calming techniques, and removing emotional stressors from your life are all helpful treatments for the emotionally-induced tension headache.
People with medically diagnosed anxiety and depression often experience regular tension headaches. The emotional stress of both anxiety and depression can impede proper self-care, including drinking enough fluids and eating right - both of which lessen headache pain. The thoughts and feelings that accompany an episode of anxiety or depression can lead to painful tension headaches. Many people with anxiety and depression use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to manage their mental health conditions. As a behavioral and habit changing practice, CBT is demonstrated to reduce the severity of anxiety and lift depression. As these conditions become better managed, many patients report a reduction of physical symptoms like headaches.
When you operate on a lack of sleep, you'll probably notice a headache along with the grainy eyes and sleepiness. Lack of sleep easily manifests into a tension headache, as your body hasn't had time to rest and repair itself properly. If you've woken up in the middle of restorative REM sleep, especially, you'll notice a dull, throbbing headache that continues throughout your day. Tiredness, in general, can cause a headache. You may be tempted to take a nap, but make sure that you nap for the right amount of time - sleep too long, and your headache will reappear. This is because you've interrupted your body's cycle of sleep yet again. A small "cat nap" for 30 to 45 minutes is the best amount of time to rest your mind and eyes and naturally ease a headache.
If you engage in exercise or physical activity on a regular basis, you probably notice that you feel off if you miss a workout. When your body becomes used to the physical activity and natural endorphin release, a lack of the improved blood flow and dopamine can lead to feeling tense in general, and usually a dull headache. For people who don't make regular exercise a habit, the idea of hitting the gym when they have a headache seems counterintuitive. Chronic inactivity might actually be causing your headaches. Our bodies need regular movement, as well as proper food and sleep. When you begin incorporating low impact exercise into your daily routine, you may see your headache symptoms recede.
You may not notice how much time you suspend in front of a screen or under artificial light. Your body does, however, and too much light from a computer or phone and not enough sunlight may manifest into eye strain. This leads to tension headaches, caused by too much "blue light" and focusing on small virtual print. The light used by computers and phones is on the blue part of the light spectrum - this isn't often found in nature, and processing the slightly different "light tint" is stressful for your eyes. If you're in front of a computer screen for hours out of the day, take time every couple of hours to turn away from the screen and relieve your eyesight. Close your eyes for a few minutes, or take a walk outside in the sunlight. Allow your sensitive eyes to rest and recharge to reduce eye strain induced headaches.
Eating and drinking well can keep your body properly nourished and hydrated. When you don't have enough water, your body becomes dehydrated. This causes headaches, as your brain isn't getting the right condition of the blood. Dehydration may go unnoticed, but if you aren't drinking enough water, and instead relying on juice, soda, or other sugary beverage to quench your thirst, then you might not be getting the proper hydration your body needs. Poor nutrition can cause headaches, as well. Your body needs valuable nutrients and vitamins found in a well-balanced diet. If you aren't getting what you need - including plenty of water and electrolytes - then your body can't operate the way it should.
If you clench your jaw in your sleep, you may unconsciously be causing your tension headaches. People who have a condition known as TMJ - a misalignment of the jaw - may also have headaches that come with the muscle strain. There are night guards available either over the counter or through your dentist that may help against clenching your jaw in your sleep. Regular use of these may see your tension headache alleviate. If you spend too much time in one position, you may end up with a headache. Poor posture causes muscle strain, especially if you're sitting hunched over. The excess strain on the neck leads to tension headaches. If you have a sedentary job, take frequent breaks to stand up, stretch, roll your neck and move around a bit.
Many of the causes of tension headaches can be eliminated by changing your habits. Switching from soda to water can help with dehydration, and adding a 20-minute walk in the evenings gives you regular exercise. Better food choices lead to better nutrition, which can help your body ward off headaches. Taking the time for valuable self-care - relaxing, making time for peace and quiet in your life, and decreasing your screen time may also help you relax, lift depression and anxiety, and thus ease your tension headache frequency and intensity. Consider, as well, getting your eyes checked. Sometimes unnoticed vision problems may be the source of a headache - a better prescription pair of glasses might cure your headache entirely.
Tension headaches can be treated in a variety of ways. Over the counter pain, medication may relieve the pain. Consult with your primary care doctor about which is best for your body. If your pain is severe, they may prescribe you a stronger painkiller. You may also use natural remedies, such as a warm bath or cold compress on the forehead. Regular massage and biofeedback may also help relax muscles and ease headaches without medication. Everybody is different. If you suffer from regular tension headaches, consult with your physician about the best course of treatment for your lifestyle.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.