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Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, and roughly 80% of adults will experience a tension headache at some point in their lives. The National Headache Foundation defines a tension headache as “a non-specific headache, which is not vascular or migrainous, and is not related to organic disease.”
So, What Causes a Tension Headache?
Tension headaches can have many causes, including:
Chemical imbalance in the brain
Imbalance in the brain’s neurons
Excess tension in the neck muscles
Excess tension in the scalp muscles
Excess tension in the face muscles
What Does a Tension Headache Feel Like?
Most tension headaches are felt on both sides of the head and are described with words like:
They’re most often felt in the:
Back of head
They usually do NOT include any of the following symptoms:
Worsened by normal activity
Sensitivity to light
Sensitivity to noise
Sensitivity to smell
Great, but are There Categories of Tension Headaches?
Of course there are categories of tension headaches; 3 to be exact, and they’re based on frequency.
Episodic – This might shock you, but your headaches are only episodic if you have less than one per month. These are usually brought on by temporary stress, fatigue, anger, or anxiety. They’re often referred to as stress headaches and are usually relieved by over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen. Caffeine also helps relieve an episodic tension headache.
Frequent – If you get 1-15 headaches per month, you’re considered to have frequent headaches. Often these headaches will co-exist with migraines. Use of the over-the-counter pain relievers mentioned above should be kept to a minimum to avoid also getting a medication overuse headache, which was previously called a rebound headache.
Chronic – You have chronic tension headaches if you have more than 15 per month. These usually develop from frequent headaches so it really behooves you to get a handle on your headaches while they’re still in the frequent category… The earlier, the better. For the record, a continuous headache doesn’t count as 1 headache; it counts as 1 per day for however many days you have the headache. So, a 5 day continuous headache counts as 5 headaches. By the way, if you’re taking a pain reliever daily and getting no relief, you should see a doctor.
More About Chronic Tension Headaches
Chronic tension headaches are often associated with one of more of the following:
Feelings of guilt
Other emotional problems
Changes in sleep patterns
Other symptoms that are common with chronic tension headaches include:
Changes in sleep patterns
People with chronic tension headaches frequently wake up with a headache or develop one late in the day and often also have a sleep disorder. Because this category of tension headache is the most disruptive to quality of life, it’s important to not only find a way to consistently relieve them but to have a preventive strategy.
Common Ways to Relieve Tension Headaches
The most common way that people attempt to relieve their tension headaches is by taking some sort of over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen. There’s a reason they’re used so much. They work. There are other ways, however. If you don’t like the idea of popping lots of pills, or you want to avoid a medication overuse headache, try one of these the next time you have a tension headache:
Caffeine – A cup of coffee or black tea will often dull or completely relieve a tension headache. (Be careful with this one because it can cause an overuse headache if used too much)
Heat – Warming the tight muscles that are causing the headache can help get rid of your pain. A microwave pack, hot shower, heating pad, or warming gel/pad are all excellent options for heating your pain away. If heat makes your pain worse, try cold.
Cold – Cold is a natural analgesic (pain reliever). Ice, gel packs, and cooling gels are the most common ways to use cold for a headache. If cold makes your pain worse, try heat.
Peppermint essential oil – Peppermint has analgesic as well as anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxant properties. It’s also cooling (because it binds to cold receptors in the body) and a vasodilator (dilates blood vessels). For a mild to moderate headache, or if you have sensitive skin, make sure to dilute one drop in a handful of unscented oil or lotion before applying to neck, base of skull, or scalp – avoid getting within 2 inches (at least) of eyes or nose. For a severe headache (only if you don’t have sensitive skin) apply one drop
Lavender essential oil – Lavender has anti-inflammatory, analgesic, stress relieving, muscle relaxant, and anti-spasmodic properties. Use the same as peppermint oil.
Peppermint/Lavender essential oil combination – Together, these two oils tend to be more effective on tension headaches than either alone.
Geranium essential oil – If you have ovaries and tend to get tension headaches at the same time in your menstrual cycle you’ll want to try geranium, or a geranium/ lavender essential oil combo. Geranium has anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, analgesic, sedative, and vasorelaxant properties. For usage, see peppermint.
Clary Sage essential oil – Clary is such an excellent muscle relaxer that many women use it to help relieve period cramps. As such, it’s a great oil to use when muscle tension is the chief cause of your tension headache. That said, it’s also pain relieving and has anti-depressant and anti-anxiety properties. Use the same as peppermint oil.
Ylang Ylang essential oil – This oil is especially good when your tension headache is stress induced as it’s extremely calming. It’s also anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, analgesic, anti-anxiety, and anti-depressant. Use the same as peppermint oil.
Deep breathing – This one costs you zero dollars, requires zero equipment, and can be done anywhere. Just slow down, and start taking slow deep breaths. Make sure that both your belly and chest are expanding on the in-breath and deflating on the out-breath.
Nap – Sometimes a 10 or 20 minute nap will relax you enough to get a handle on your pain. Also, laying down can give your neck muscles a rest which may help reduce their contribution to your pain.
Bath or shower – The warmth of the water can relax both body and mind. Just make sure to dress warmly when you get out.
Meditate – The act of meditating is a great way to become deeply relaxed, which is a great way to get rid of a stress induced tension headache.
Change your posture – Specifically, tune into where your head is in relation to your shoulders and which way your chin is tipped (up, down, or neutral). If your head is forward, try bringing it back so it’s over your shoulders. If your chin is tipped up toward the ceiling, try tucking it in toward your chest while bringing your head over your shoulders. If that posture relieves all or some of your pain, you’ll benefit from…
Massage – See what I did there? Nice segue, huh? Massage can be deeply relaxing to body and mind as well as work out the muscle tension that’s causing your headache.
Alright, I’ve gone on long enough. I’ve told you what tension headaches are, their causes and symptoms, as well as what they feel like, how they’re categorized, and how to relieve the pain.
If you feel I missed something or have questions about anything here, let me know in the comments below.
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