In General Knowledge for the Family, Physical & Mental Health

What is a Tension Headache?

Sometimes, when we get stressed out, we end up with a tight neck, sore muscles and a headache. When this happens, we often refer to this type of pain as a tension headache. For most, a tension headache is a dull, continuous pain in the forehead or the back of the head just above the neck. In most cases, one dose of aspirin will take care of the headache, but for others, it might take a little bit more than just popping two tablets.

The Mayo Clinic staff define a tension headache as being a “mild to moderate pain in your head that’s often described as feeling like a tight band around your head”. According to the Mayo Clinic, tension headaches are the most common of all headaches, yet its causes are still not fully understood.

Though there is nothing to be too concerned over when suffering from a tension headache; they do tend to disrupt our day to day lives. Let’s take a look at the different symptoms of these types of headaches and how to find some relief when suffering from one.

What is a tension headache?

Unfortunately, the main cause of a tension headache is unknown at this time. However, it was once believed by most experts that these headaches are a result of the muscles in the face, neck and scalp contracting. In most cases, these headaches become more intense when someone is experiencing heightened emotions, high amounts of tension and stress. However, it has been discovered that the muscles contracting is not the cause of tension headaches.

Some theories claim that people who have tension headaches have a heightened sensitivity to pain or suffer from increased muscle tenderness. It is believed that the most common trigger for tension headaches is stress.

Tension Headache Symptoms

According to the Mayo Clinic, tension headaches are divided into two main categories – episodic and chronic. Those that are episodic generally last anywhere from 30 minutes up to one entire week. Frequent occurrences of these headaches are generally classified as chronic.

Symptoms of tension headache include:

  • A dull and aching head pain.
  • Tightness or pressure across the forehead.
  • Tightness or pressure down the sides and back of the head.
  • Tenderness on the scalp, neck or shoulders.
  • Pain in the neck when moving the head around.

It is recommended to seek emergency care if you experience any of the following when suffering from chronic tension headaches:

  • Abrupt and severe pain in the head.
  • Fever with stiff neck, mental confusion, double vision, weakness or numbness.
  • Experiencing seizures.
  • Having difficulty speaking.
  • Suffering from a head injury.
  • When the headache worsens.

Though tension headaches are painful, they differ from migraines. These types of headaches do not cause severe pain that can temporarily disable a person. In most cases, those suffering from tension headaches can continue working and make it through the day. However, these headaches can develop into a migraine, making it impossible for you to function at work, running errands or working around the house.

Tension headache treatment

Unlike a migraine, tension headache relief can be rather easy. Most people suffering from a tension headache do not need to seek medical attention. In fact there are many ways you can relieve yourself from the pain associated with this type of headache.

Here are some treatments and drugs recommended by the Mayo Clinic that will help relieve your tension headache:

  • Over the counter pain relievers: This should be the first line of defense against a headache. OTC pain relievers include aspirin, naproxen and ibuprofen.
  • Combination of medications: Sometimes when the headache does not go away, it may be necessary to take a combination drug. Some suggested medications include those that are combined with caffeine or a sleep aid.
  • Triptans and narcotics: Those suffering from chronic tension headaches may need something stronger that what over the counter medications can offer. If this is the case, speak with your physician and ask about triptans and narcotics to help relieve you of your headaches.
  • Antidepressants: If your headaches are a result of depression or stress, your physician may prescribe you an antidepressant to help relieve the symptoms.

Home remedies

If you are not wanting to take medications for your headaches, the Mayo Clinic suggests trying some home remedies to help relieve yourself of the pain. Some of these suggestions may also help reduce the chances of experiencing future headaches, especially if you reduce your stress levels at work and at home.

Here are some of the home remedies offered by the Mayo Clinic:

  • Manage stress levels: Make plans for your day ahead of time and do everything you can to reduce your stress levels. You may also want to allow more time to relax during the day. This can help reduce the amount of headaches you suffer from.
  • Apply some ice: Use an ice pack or a bag of frozen vegetables to cool your forehead and back of your neck down. This will help relieve the pain from the headache.
  • Apply some heat: If you do not want to use a cold compress for your headache you can also use a hot-water bottle, warm compress or a hot towel to help relieve your headache.
  • Improve your posture: Poor posture can cause muscles to tense up. Hold your shoulders back, sit and stand up straight and always keep your head level.

Help for Headaches also offers some tips on how to relieve tension headaches. Those tips include:

  • Controlling how we respond to stress.
  • Getting cognitive and emotional therapy.
  • Changing our behaviors, such as exercising, eating right and quitting drinking and/or smoking.
  • Take care of our bodies.

Dealing with chronic tension headaches

When suffering from chronic tension headaches, many discover that the typical over the counter medications do not effectively help relieve the pain. Knowing how to cope and deal with chronic headaches will help prepare you to continue with your day-to-day life and get back to being your normal self before the headaches start to control your life.

Here are some tips offered by Harvard Medical School to help deal with chronic tension headaches:

  • Find the right doctor: One who will understand what you are going through. It might be necessary to find a neurologist to work with you and help you through your pain.
  • Talk to someone: This can be a trusted friend or family member, but can also be a professional. Talking to someone about the stress in your life will help reduce the tension your body holds in, thus reducing the amount of tension headaches you suffer from.
  • Lighten your load: You may have to not take on extra work, such as more projects or overtime. You may also have to give up some of your activities and responsibilities. Ask friends, family and co-workers to help lighten your load. If they know you are suffering because of being overworked, chances are they will be more than happy to lend a hand.
  • Keep your mind busy: When relaxing read a book, watch a movie or do something to keep your mind occupied.

Those of us who have suffered from a tension headache know just how much it can impact our day. Depending upon the severity of the headache, we find ourselves withdrawing from others and wanting nothing more than going to bed and sleep the pain away. That is why it is important to know the different tension headaches symptoms and prepare yourself to battle the pain before it gets severe.

If you find yourself suffering from chronic headaches, it is important to speak to your physician about your symptoms. Though a tension headache is generally nothing to worry about, it could be a symptom of something else. Your physician will know how to treat your chronic headache and offer suggestions to prevent them from continuing in the future.

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