Dear headache, please go away and leave me alone!!!
Most people experience headaches from time to time. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 47 percent of adults suffered from a headache at least once in the last year. They can cause a world of pain and disability and sufferers are highly motivated to understand their causes and to find a treatment. Often at peak times of stress in our lives – like tight deadlines at work – they can be impossible to ease for days and even weeks at a time.
What is a tension headache?
Tension headaches are the most common form of headache in adults. They can range from the occasional mild headache to daily disabling headaches which, in some cases, can limit our ability to function properly in our day-to-day lives.
The UK National Health service BHS guidelines describe the symptoms as: “Tension type headaches often feel like a constant ache that affects both sides of the head. You may also feel the neck muscles tighten and a feeling of pressure behind the eyes.”
There are two different categories of tension headaches – episodic and chronic. Episodic tension type headaches are defined as occurring fewer than 15 days a month, whereas, chronic tension headaches occur 15 days or more a month over a period of at least 6 months. The pain may get stronger or ease up throughout the day, but it’s almost always there.
What are the symptoms?
Tension headaches have a range of symptoms, including:
• Pain in and around the head and scalp
• Pain felt at the back of the skull, temples
and above eyes
• Tight band feeling
• Pressure feeling
• Pressure headache which starts as
the day progresses
• Trouble focusing
• Muscle problems and tension
• May be associated with stress, anxiety, tension and depression
• Can last hours, days and often for weeks
• Can be recurrent or persistent over long periods
A typical tension headache can commonly last for a few hours or even several days. They can be uncomfortable and tiring, but they do not usually disturb sleep and most people can carry on working. They are not usually made worse by physical activity, although it's not unusual to be a bit sensitive to bright light or noise.
What causes tension headaches?
Although the precise cause of tension headaches is unknown, there are factors that seem to pre-dispose people to suffer from them. These triggers can include:
• Physical tension in the muscles of the scalp and neck
• Emotional stress, anxiety, tension and depression. This usually occurs in the
afternoon after a long stressful work hour or after an exam
• Sleep deprivation and fatigue
• Physical or emotional stress
• Poor posture, including sitting poorly, bad ergonomics, typing, computer work
or sleeping on too many pillows
• Eye strain and vision problems
• Irregular meal times and skipping meals
• Teeth clenching
• Neck arthritis or cervical (neck) disc problems
8 great DIY treatments and preventative steps for tension headaches
1. It’s best to treat tension headaches when they first begin and the symptoms are still mild. The goal is to catch them in time, to prevent more of them from happening and to relieve any pain you're already in.
2. Medications You can take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, to get rid of a tension headache. However, these should only be used occasionally. If OTC pain relievers don't help, your doctor may recommend a prescription-strength med or a muscle relaxant. You should always be aware that overuse of OTC medications may lead to “overuse” or “rebound” headaches. These types of headaches occur when you become so accustomed to a medication that you experience pain when the drugs wear off.
Preventative steps you can take:
3. Exercise A brisk 15 minute walk in the fresh air can do wonders and can shake
off that nagging pressure and tension headache. Some people who suffer from
frequent headaches say that they have fewer headaches if they exercise regularly.
If you do not exercise frequently, it may be worth trying some regular activities
such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, etc. It may also improve
posture and neck muscle tension.
4. Stress management and relaxation techniques.
5. Apply a heating pad or ice pack to your head for 5 to 10 minutes several times
6. Take a hot bath or shower to relax tense muscles.
7. Improve your posture.
8. Take frequent computer breaks to prevent eye strain.
Try complementary therapies and supplements
Complementary therapies such as osteopathy, physiotherapy and acupuncture can all help to prevent and relieve tension headaches. The goal of preventative treatment is to reduce the frequency and intensity of the headaches - the headaches may not go away completely, but they will often develop less often and be less severe. Any headache that does occur while taking preventative medication may also be eased better than previously by a painkiller.
Osteopathy may help
Tension in the neck is one of the reasons that osteopathic treatment for headaches can be so helpful. Simply by relieving the tension in the muscles and releasing the joints in the neck, osteopathic treatment for headaches can very quickly improve your symptoms.
Osteopaths use a wide range of techniques to treat and help ease headaches. These could include manipulation of the muscles that may be contributing to the headache or have become tight and cause spasms in response to the headache, together with gentle soft tissue massage, dry needling and trigger point therapy, as well as recommendations on exercises and posture correction.
Supplements may also help relieve tension headaches, checkout the following:
• Coenzyme Q10
• Vitamin B-2
However, since alternative remedies can interact with conventional medications, you should always discuss these with a doctor before taking any.
The difference between tension headaches and migraines
Tension headaches can be difficult to distinguish from migraines. In addition, if you have frequent episodic tension headaches, you can also have migraines. Unlike some forms of migraine, tension headaches usually aren't associated with visual disturbances, nausea or vomiting. Although physical activity typically aggravates migraine pain, it doesn't make tension headache pain worse. An increased sensitivity to either light or sound which is a distinctive characteristic of migraine can occur with a tension headache, but it is not a common symptom. It is, however, possible for a tension-type headache to trigger a migraine attack. Unlike migraine headaches, this type of headache doesn’t run in families.
Recognize the triggers
Since tension headaches are often caused by specific triggers, identifying the factors that cause your headaches is one way to prevent future episodes. The best approach is to try to work out what triggers your headache. A headache diary can help you track the cause of your tension headaches.
A headache diary
Keep a daily record of what you eat and drink, activities, and any situations that trigger stress. Then note which days you suffer from a tension headache. As you work with the diary, you should see a pattern of behavior-tension headaches forming. Although you may not always be able to avoid all triggers, e.g. stress, you may be able to deal with these situations through breathing and relaxation techniques and exercises which may help to prevent an oncoming headache.
Don’t allow tensions headaches to ruin your life
There is no doubt that tension headaches can negatively affect your quality of life. However, as you can see there are solutions and treatments that are worth trying. The trick to managing your tension headache is often a balance between fostering healthy habits, finding effective non-drug treatments and using medications appropriately. Find this balance and you will see that happiness is ….suddenly realizing that your headache has disappeared.
Miriam Lipshitz is the Back into Shape team IDD technician, clinical receptionist and blogger. She is a South African qualified and experienced teacher by profession with wide ranging experience in research and writing.