There are different types of headaches that are commonly experienced: sinus, cluster, migraine, and tension. According to the World Health Organization, nearly half of the adult population globally experiences at least one headache per year. Different types are associated with concentrated pain in different places. Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and are typically described as a tight band around the forehead that feels like it is squeezing the head, producing pain and/or discomfort. Tension headaches can be experienced one to two times per month or chronically. Effective treatment usually involves a combination of self-managed care strategies and nonprescription medications.
Causes and Symptoms
Tension headaches can be experienced by people of all ages but it most common among adults and older teenagers. They are caused by muscle contractions in the head and neck area. These contractions can be triggered by a range of factors including the following:
- Stress, anxiety, depression
- Physical injury
- Substances: excess caffeine, alcohol, smoking
- Colds, flu, sinus infections
- Strained eyes (staring at digital screens for too long)
- Fatigue and lack of sleep
- Holding one position for a long period of time
- Cold temperatures
- Sleeping in uncomfortable position
- Reduced water intake, not enough meals
- Grinding teeth, clenching jaw
These factors cause headache symptoms that are typically mild to moderate:
- Pain in and around the head
- Pressure around the forehead
- Sensitivity around forehead and scalp areas
Tension headaches are not as intense as migraines which can produce throbbing pain, nausea, vomiting etc. They can still disrupt daily flow and ability to navigate personal and professional responsibilities with ease.
Treating tension headaches typically involves modifying behavior and nonprescription medications that can alleviate symptoms. Strategies include the following:
- Behavioral Changes: this is generally where one can start to prevent tension headaches. This can include a variety of modifications including: staying hydrated by drinking more water; reducing or eliminating consumption of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine; improving sleep, eating consistently, taking breaks from looking at screens, changing positions, improving posture etc. These strategies have to be practiced consistently and can be beneficial for overall health and wellness.
- OTC Medications: the most common over the counter (OTC) pain medications include ibuprofen or aspirin. While these can alleviate pain and other symptoms, they should be used occasionally and not relied upon. Overusing these medications can actually lead to more headaches caused by growing use to them and experiencing symptoms when they wear off.
- Prescription Medications: if self-managed interventions and over the counter medications are ineffective, your healthcare provider could prescribe different medications including opiates, naproxen, indomethacin to manage and relieve pain. They could also prescribe a muscle relaxant which works to prevent the muscle contractions causing tension headaches.
- Therapies: your healthcare provider may also recommend different types of therapies that are intended to help you identify and manage stress more effectively. This can include:
- stress management classes: courses that are designed to help people manage stress with greater ease and control.
- cognitive behavioral therapy: involves talking with a licensed mental health professional and identifying causes of stress and anxiety and ways to healthily process.
- acupuncture: a form of alternative medicine, acupuncture involves placing tiny needles beneath the surface of the skin (at different pressure points) to release tension.
More Tips to Manage Tension Headaches
In addition to exploring the treatment that works best for you, there are ways you can manage tension headaches to reduce their impact including:
- take a warm shower or bath to relax the muscles
- apply a heating pad or ice pack to the head for 5-10 minutes a few times a day
- track when you experience headaches so you can identify any pattern and specific cause that activates it. Write down what you eat, activities you engage in, stressors etc.
- incorporate relaxation activities in daily life: yoga, meditation, breathing exercises etc.
- take breaks throughout the day from all screens (computer, phone, television) to prevent straining the eyes
- establish a sleep routine: ensure you have comfortable bedding, go to sleep at the same time every night, adjust lighting to your preference etc.
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