What Are Tension Headaches?

Tension headaches are the most common type of headaches. Although they do not usually indicate a serious condition, they are a difficult condition with which to live. They are characterized by diffuse pain often described as a “tight band around the head.” This condition can be either episodic or chronic.

Individuals with episodic tension headaches will experience at least ten headache episodes that last from 30 minutes up to a week but occur fewer than 180 times annually. On the other hand, chronic tension headaches occur at least 15 days or more a month for at least three months. Suffering from this chronic condition can sometimes cause stress and depression, which can in turn aggravate the severity of the headaches.

Signs of tension headache may include:

  • Dull, aching head pain
  • Feelings of tightness or pressure across the forehead or on the sides and back of the head
  • Pain that is described as mild or moderate
  • Tenderness of the scalp, neck and shoulder muscles
  • Sensitivity to light or sound

Since some symptoms may be similar to migraine symptoms, it can be hard to diagnose this condition. Furthermore, you may suffer from both migraines and tension headaches. However, unlike migraines, tension headaches are not affected by routine physical activity and typically don’t cause nausea, vomiting and visual disturbances like auras.

Causes and Factors

Researchers and physicians cannot pinpoint the exact causes of this headache type. Some research suggests that chronic muscular tension in the head, face and neck could cause muscle tension headache. Changes in brain chemicals can also cause these headaches.

Typically, causes or triggers can include:

  • Stress
  • Hunger
  • Muscle straining
  • Muscle spasms
  • Sensitivity to pain
  • Increased muscle tenderness that results from pain sensitivity
  • Cold temperatures
  • Staring at a computer screen for prolonged periods of time
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Eye straining
  • Smoking

Treating Tension Headaches

If your headaches are severe, a headache specialist will need to rule out any serious underlying medical causes, such as a brain lesion. You may need to undergo special imaging tests such as an MRI or CT scan, which will allow a physician to thoroughly inspect your brain.

An expert medical team at a headache center will proceed to develop a treatment plan based on your physical and emotional health, taking into account all of the symptoms that you report experiencing.

Pharmacological therapy is often used for treating these headaches. Over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, are often effective at alleviating symptoms. Your physician will make sure to prescribe a medication dose and schedule that will not cause rebound headaches.

Treating severe tension headaches usually requires prescription medication, such as ketorolac and prescription-strength naproxen or acetaminophen. Muscle relaxants, on the other hand, can be effective at minimizing muscular tension linked to headaches. Chemical imbalances may require the use of antidepressants to stabilize levels of serotonin and help you manage stress.

Supplements including vitamin B-2, coenzyme Q10, magnesium and feverfew are sometimes used to treat these headaches. Your medical team will evaluate which supplements might benefit you based on what medications are included in your treatment plan.

Biofeedback can teach you how to manage pain and stress, which can also be relieved with massage therapy. Your treatment plan may include ear and/or neurological scalp acupuncture to lessen tension and stress.

Psychological intervention, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, can help you recognize situations that cause tension and anxiety. If you suffer from muscular tension, then physical and recreational therapy will help correct your daily posture and habits.

Tension headaches can also benefit from simple at-home remedies. These include applying heat or ice to your head, making a conscious effort to improve your posture, avoiding eye straining by taking breaks from your computer as necessary and taking hot showers to ease muscular tension.