What Is Tension Headache? Causes, Symptoms, Treatment And Pain Management Tips

Tension headache: How to differentiate a regular headache with tension headache?

Tavishi Dogra
Written by: Tavishi DograUpdated at: Nov 30, 2020 10:40 IST
What Is Tension Headache? Causes, Symptoms, Treatment And Pain Management Tips

What is a tension headache? The overwhelming stresses faced as a part of modern life causes a feeling of unrest in most people. Constant social media attention, infrequent stress release mechanisms, the insatiable hunger for perfection and trying to do too much contribute to increased stress levels. Inability to cope up with these stressors, then manifest in various forms of health ailments, the commonest of which is tension headaches. Previously known by many standard terms such as psychogenic headache, stress headache, psycho myogenic headache, muscle contraction headaches the international classification of headache diagnosis has now named it has tension-type of headache. As the name suggests some kind of mental or muscular tension plays a role in causing these headaches. 

 causes of a tension headache

What are the causes of a tension headache?

Although the exact cause of tension headaches is not known, most of the theories suggest that tension or stress is the root cause of tension headaches. Any transformation that requires an adaptation, the body reacts to it with mental, physical and emotional responses which can cause anxiety. Sometimes even a positive life transition such as becoming a parent,  a promotion, etc. become overwhelming and can cause anxiety. Most theories suggest that excessive contraction facial and neck muscles due to increased emotions, either positive or negative trigger tension-type headaches. Some other triggers consist of anxiety, hunger, depression, dental issues and smoking.

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Here are some signs of a tension headache

Typically the tension headache manifests as a band like tightening sensation around the head. Sometimes these headaches make may be located on both sides of the head or may be associated with pain behind the eyes. These are usually mild to moderate in intensity, generally bilateral in location and do not worsen with routine physical activity. Frequency of these headaches may vary from one to two times in a month, but in some cases, they may become more chronic. Very rarely they may be associated with symptoms of nausea, vomiting and insensitivity too light and noise.

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How to differentiate tension headache with a regular headache?

The other most common type of headache experienced by people is migraine. Migraine headaches are generally unilateral, throbbing type with specific triggers and relieving factors. Often associated with insensitivity to light nausea and vomiting, Migraine headaches are disabling and disrupt your daily routine. Tension headaches, on the other hand, are mild and generally do not interfere with your practice. Relieved quickly with over the counter medication, people rarely seek attention for tension headaches. Sometimes a mixed tension migraine headache may occur, which is more commonly seen in women. Here the diagnosis becomes confusing and needs an expert for the differentiation. If any type of headaches become more frequent and disturbing, it is advisable to approach an expert for its evaluation and characterisation. 

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Here are some pain management tips for dealing with tension headache 

  • Keeping yourself well hydrated, having appropriate, timely meals and cutting down on smoking help in the relief of tension headaches. When the above factors fail to bring headaches in control, over the counter medications such as ibuprofen or paracetamol can be taken. Some vitamins, such as riboflavin, coenzyme Q, Magnesium are known to give relief from headache. Supplementations of these may be helpful.
  • Other techniques that may help in the relief of tension headaches consist of hot or cold fomentation, taking a shower to relieve your stress, acupressure or massage to relieve stresses and maintaining appropriate postures. 
treatments of a tension headache 

What are the treatments of a tension headache?

What is the safest method to deal with any difficulty? The best way is to get to the root of its cause. While it is impossible to completely get rid of stress as it is a natural emotion like any other what's important is that one should not allow the pressure to get into your head. As the name suggests, stress headaches are caused by stress, so the best way to tackle them is to identify the stressors and to manage them. When simple stress-relieving measures and over the counter medications do not help in the relief of these headaches, it is advisable to visit an expert and get a personalized treatment protocol made.

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Some preventive measures for tension headache 

Some simple tips for doing reduce tension headaches are:

  • Relaxation techniques: Pursuing hobbies can be best relaxation method. Make time for activities you like; such as music, dancing, reading or spending time with your pet, anything that helps in taking your mind off from the routine acts as an excellent relaxation technique. 
  • Reorganize your life: In today's world, it is rather challenging to have an organised experience. This is only possible if one can prioritize their daily chores and activities. It is okay to say 'no' to actions that can wait. 
  • Healthy meals and exercise: This is a must for overall health. A headache or tension headaches are no different from this; hence it is essential to incorporate regular exercise and healthy meals in your daily lifestyle. A diet full of vegetables and fresh fruits helps in keeping tension under control. Similarly, if you want a break from day to day stressors then include any form of exercise in your daily lifestyle. Again cutting down on bad habits itself acts as a feel-good factor. 
  preventive measures
  • Sleeping well: Sleep and stress go hand in hand. Often its like a vicious cycle. Lack of sleep interferes with the bodies mechanisms to cope up with anxiety and stress itself can interfere with the sleeping pattern. Hence it is essential to get adequate sleep to keep the pressure at bay.
  • Positive attitude: Positivity is the best shield against stress. Whenever you feel overwhelmed, renew your energies by taking a break to clear your mind. If something is not working out well learn to let go as not everything is under our control.
  • Taking breaks: Taking vacations and getting away from daily routine is a beautiful way to deal with anxiety. How does vacations support? Holidays helps one to develop a new perspective towards things in life. 

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How long do tension headaches last?

Usually, tension headaches are not severe enough to interrupt your daily routine. They can last from as little as 30 minutes to a few hours, but sometimes they may continue for a few days. Generally, most of the tension-type headaches are relieved within a week; however, if the frequency and severity of the headaches are increasing approach your doctor for appropriate guidance.

 Are tension headaches severe?

Are tension headaches severe? When should one seek medical help?

Do you know that maximum of the patients with stress headache does not reach out to a physician? With over the counter medicines, most utmost of the patients self medicates themselves. However, when these fail to work seek medical attention. Although we do not suggest regular screening for all patients with a headache but seeking medical care in the following situations becomes essential.

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  • When a headache suddenly becomes severe.
  • When there are new signs and symptoms associated with a headache.
  • When it is getting worse despite taking medicines and rest.
  • When the headache is accompanied with any kind of neurological problems like convulsions, double vision, difficulty in talking, numbness or weakness.

(With inputs from Dr Shradha Maheshwari, Consultant Neurosurgeon, R. N. Cooper Hospital, Founder and Head, Department of Neurosurgery, HBT Medical College, Mumbai)

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