Headaches are a common human experience that can happen at any time for a wide variety of reasons. According to the International Headache Society, the most common type of headache is known as a tension headache. With more than two billion people suffering from tension headaches, they are the most prevalent neurological disorder in the world. Yet as common as they are, tension headaches are often dismissed as a minor nuisance rather than investigating the cause and finding the right treatment.
What is a Tension-Type Headache?
Also sometimes called a stress headache, a tension-type headache is primarily defined by its location on the head: a mild to moderate pain that feels like a tight band wrapped around the forehead, the sides of the head, and the back of the head. The pain is typically dull and aching and accompanied by a feeling of pressure all around the head. In some cases, there is also tenderness or sensitivity in the scalp, the back of the neck, and the muscles of the shoulder.
Tension headaches can generally be divided into two categories that are based on frequency over time: episodic and chronic. Episodic tension-type headaches are a type defined as having headaches on fewer than 15 days a month or 180 days a year. Chronic tension-type headaches are defined as having headaches on more than 15 days a month for more than three months or more than 180 days in a year. Unsurprisingly, episodic tension headaches can eventually become chronic episodic headaches.
Tension headaches should not be confused with migraine headaches, however. As noted above, the pain of a tension-type headache is typically a mild-to-moderate steady ache. By contrast, migraine headaches are usually associated with moderate to severe pain that throbs and worsens with physical activity; they may also cause nausea, vomiting, or visual disturbances. For many people, the pain of a tension headache is much more mild and tolerable than the sometimes debilitating pain of a migraine.
What Causes Tension-Type Headaches?
There is no known singular cause of tension-type headaches, though the medical community once believed that they were the result of stress and muscle contractions in the face and neck. While these factors may have some impact on the development of headaches, recent studies indicate that they aren’t a primary cause. Instead, research suggests the cause is a combination of environmental or personal factors along with alterations to some neural pain pathways.
Rather than a specific cause, a greater emphasis is placed on determining the activities or stimuli that might trigger a tension headache. One of the main mechanisms of headache pain is the muscles in the scalp and neck becoming tense and contracted; however, it is possible to have a tension-type headache without the musculature being involved. In general, any activity that involves the head being held in one position for too long can cause a headache. Below are some additional tension headache triggers that have been identified:
- computer work or any kind of work where your head doesn’t move much
- sleeping in an awkward or abnormal position
- fatigue or a general lack of rest
- emotional or physical stress
- eye strain
- skipping meals or not drinking enough water
- use of or withdrawal from alcohol or caffeine
- excessive tobacco smoking
- having a cold, the flu, or a sinus infection
- jaw clenching or other dental problems
Beyond individual triggers that can affect anyone, some people are more prone to getting tension-type headaches. While it’s possible to get a tension headache at any age, they are more common in adults and some teenagers. Women are also twice as likely to get tension headaches as men. Of the nearly 80% of the population that get them, the vast majority are cases of episodic tension headaches and only around 3% have the chronic type.
Treatment Options for a Tension-Type Headache
Since the basic cause of tension headaches is still not understood, that also means there isn’t a specific treatment or cure. The main goal of treatment in these cases is first to ease any pain or other symptoms. This is primarily done with medication, but for chronic cases it should be in consultation with a doctor; overly frequent use of painkillers can actually lead to another type of headache called medication overuse headache (or rebound headache). Below are some examples of medication and home remedies that can help ease headache pain:
- over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen
- muscle relaxants
- apply heat or ice to sore muscles
- reduce acute stress
How to Prevent Tension Headaches
Once a method has been employed to bring pain relief, the next step is to work toward preventing tension headaches in the first place. For many people, some basic lifestyle changes can potentially make a huge difference. Anything you can do to reduce general life stress can help, but there are also day-to-day life considerations like getting proper rest, eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, and exercising regularly. Below are some additional preventative measures that can help prevent headaches:
- Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a technique where electrical sensors connected to the body allow a patient to see a visual representation of some body functions and then learn how to use that information to make changes.
- Acupuncture: While acupuncture is somewhat controversial, there is evidence that the precise application of thin needles in the skin can help reduce the frequency and severity of headaches.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: CBT is a type of talk therapy that can help identify emotional or psychological factors involved in headaches.
- Relaxation Exercises: Mediation, yoga, breathing exercises or any number of other relaxation exercises can help you bring down your stress levels and limit a common trigger for headaches.
- Medication: In some cases, a doctor may prescribe preventative medication; examples include antidepressants like amitriptyline, anti-seizure drugs, or anticonvulsants.
When to Call a Doctor
Since headaches are so common, it can be difficult to know when to seek medical advice. Getting a tension headache every so often probably isn’t a concern, but if you have chronic headaches or greater than normal amount of pain, you should contact a doctor. Depending on your symptoms and patient history, the doctor will do a physical examination and potential order blood test, X-rays, or a CT scan as the need warrants.
If you have been experiencing frequent headaches and it has become a pattern or started to negatively impact your life, you don’t need to suffer anymore. At TrustCare, we work hard to make it as quick and easy as possible to get medical care whenever you need it. We also recognize that going to an emergency room for a non-life threatening condition is expensive and time consuming. Feel free to drop by one of our urgent care locations, open seven days a week.