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WHAT IS A TENSION HEADACHE?

When stress causes headaches.

Tension-type headaches are common, “everyday” headaches. Nearly everyone will have at least one tension-type headache at some point in their lives and it’s estimated that up to 80 percent of adults experience them on an occasional basis. While there’s no precise diagnosis for a tension-type headache, the sensation — a tight band being painfully stretched across your head — is all too familiar to many.

Symptoms of a Tension Headache

Dull, aching head pain, stiff muscles and tightness in the neck, shoulders, scalp and jaws, are the main symptoms of tension headaches. They can cause mild to moderate pain but will not usually render you incapable of normal activity.

Doctors classify tension headaches as episodic or chronic; episodic headaches occur less than 15 times a month, while chronic headaches happen more frequently, and for longer than three months. Either type can last anywhere from a half hour to a full, head-pounding week.

Causes of a Tension Headache

Tension headaches can be brought on by myriad factors, with stress being the most common. Essentially anything that causes stress — a looming deadline, relationship troubles or money problems, for example — can trigger a tension headache.

Anxiety, depression, or even things like poor posture or sleeping in a room that’s too cold, are possible tension-type headache triggers, too. And once a headache strikes, noise, glare, fatigue, or stress can exacerbate the pain.

Non-stress-related causes of headaches, including lack of sleep, skipping meals, eyestrain, excess alcohol or tobacco, cold or flu, jaw clenching or teeth grinding, staying in one position too long or poor posture, and even sleeping in a room that’s too cold may also contribute to tension-type headaches.

Treating a Tension Headache

There are several other treatment approaches that can be used effectively in combination with pain relievers to combat headache pain. OTC pain relievers such as a combination of acetaminophen and caffeine, can help relieve tension headaches.

Here are 6 things you can do on your own:

  • Apply heat or ice. Some doctors recommend heat before getting a headache and ice once a headache is in progress. Other people find heat to be effective during a headache. So, if one method doesn't work for you, try the other.
  • Watch your posture. Poor posture can contribute to headaches. People who work in the same position for long periods of time are especially susceptible to this. If your job requires you to stay in a fixed position, be sure to stretch, stand up, move around and take breaks every hour or so.
  • Stretch your neck and shoulder muscles. Tightness in these areas commonly accompanies headaches. Loosening these muscles can stimulate circulation and help you relax, both of which may help relieve your headache.
  • Get a massage. Neck and shoulder muscle massage improves circulation, relieves muscle tension, and can reduce the pain of a headache in progress. Done regularly, massage can also help to prevent headaches.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. Achieving a state of deep relaxation on a regular basis can increase your ability to handle stress, a leading contributor to tension headaches.
  • Exercise regularly. Added to the list of well-known benefits of regular exercise is the fact that it can help to combat problem headaches. Exercise has a positive effect on brain chemistry that benefits many headache sufferers.

Other non-drug techniques require professional assistance, including biofeedback, physical therapy, psychotherapy...even acupuncture and acupressure have been reported effective for some headache sufferers.

But while medication plays an important role in treating headaches, no one — especially frequent headache sufferers — should ignore all available options. Talk to your doctor for more information about treatment that may be right for you.

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