A Closer Look
Tension or muscle contraction headaches are the most common type of headache. The actual cause of these headaches is not clearly understood, and is most likely related to alteration in levels of certain neurotransmitters (specific chemicals which function in the brain). Regardless of the cause, tension headaches feel as if the muscle groups in and around the shoulders, neck, scalp and jaw are tightening.
No wonder it hurts!
Tension type headaches
- cause a pressure, tightening, or band like pain sensation in the forehead and temple areas of the face;
- cause mild to moderate pain;
- are usually located on both sides of the head;
- do not cause nausea or vomiting;
- are not associated with light, sound or smell sensitivity;
- last from 30 minutes to 7 days; If the headaches occur 15 or more days a month for at least three months, they’re considered chronic tension headaches.
It is generally understood that an event outside of the body causes or “triggers” the tension headaches to start. The most common triggers include:
- depression and anxiety;
- eye strain, neck and back strain due to poor posture;
- working in awkward positions or holding one position for a long time;
- jaw clenching;
Other causes include:
- lack of sleep;
- skipped meals;
- alcohol use.
Nearly everyone experiences occasional tension-type headaches that can be treated by using over the counter medications such as ibuprofen (Advil®), naproxsyn (Aleeve®) or acetaminophen (Tylenol®) as needed. However, frequent or chronic tension-type headaches cause significant interference with daily life activities and quality of life.
Treatment of chronic tension headaches may include a trial of preventive medications. These medications are taken on a regular daily basis, to prevent the headaches from starting. Different types of medications are considered for this type of treatment, and include antidepressants, muscle relaxers, benzodiazepines, or vasodilators.
A search of medical literature was done by researchers to determine the effectiveness of preventive medication use for chronic tension headaches.
Researchers evaluated 44 different studies and found only poor quality evidence that prevention with medication is an effective way to treat chronic migraine headaches.
So what can be done for treatment?
Aside from over-the-counter or prescription medication; the answer may be as simple as taking good care of yourself.
Effective self-treatment and/or prevention of tension headaches can be achieved through positive lifestyle changes. The same lifestyle choices that promote good health may reduce the frequency and severity of your tension-type headaches. Consider the basics:
Make healthy food choices.
Choose foods from a wide variety of food groups. Don’t skip meals, and drink plenty of fluids.
During physical activity, your body releases certain chemicals that block pain signals to your brain. Choose any exercise you enjoy such as walking, swimming, or bicycling, or cross country skiing this time of year. It important to start an exercise program at a low intensity level and work to a higher level because exercising too vigorously initially has some health risks. Recommendations for exercise are 40-45 minutes at least 5 days per wee
Establish a regular sleep schedule. Wake up and go to bed at the same time every day; even on weekends. Erratic or interrupted sleep patterns may trigger headaches.
Avoid excess caffeine.
High caffeine intake can cause headaches and irritability.
Quit smoking and or tobacco (nicotine) use.
Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide, a known headache trigger, and nicotine has been shown to interfere with the liver’s ability to break down headache medication.
Keep stress under control.
Stress and tension-type headaches often go hand in hand. To reduce stress, try these simple tips:
- Simplify your life. Rather than looking for ways to squeeze more activities or chores into the day, find a way to leave some things out or choose to include the activities that are most important to you.
- Manage your time wisely. Update your to-do list every day — both at work and at home. Delegate what you can, and break large projects into manageable chunks.
- Take a break. If you feel overwhelmed, a few slow stretches or a quick walk may renew your energy for the task at hand.
- Adjust your attitude. Stay positive. If you find yourself thinking, “This can’t be done,” switch gears. Think instead, “This will be tough. But I can make it work.”
- Let go. Don’t worry about things you can’t control.
Keep a headache diary
A diary may help you determine what triggers your tension-type headaches. Note when your headaches start, what you were doing at the time, how long they last and what, if anything, provides relief. With the help of a headache diary, you may begin to notice patterns in your daily life that may contribute to your tension-type headaches. You may also note the benefits of healthy lifestyle changes