Tension Headache

A stressful lifestyle is a major cause of tension headaches. Taking a few minutes every day to relieve stress can help prevent this painful condition.

A tension headache is a common problem that originates from the ongoing contraction of muscles surrounding the head and upper neck.

Tension headaches often have their roots in problems not directly related to the neck area. These can include:

  • grinding of the teeth (bruxism), which increases tension to the head muscles
  • poor postural habits, which allow the muscles attached between the head and neck to shorten, causing a more frequent and direct pull on the base of the head
  • excessive squinting and emotional stress, which also cause contraction of the area muscles.

Symptoms of a tension headache may include tenderness of the skull, pain at the base of head (occiput) or pain above the ears and eyes. Some sufferers also experience pain in the jaw, ear or upper back and neck.

Diagnosis and treatment of tension headaches may be difficult. A thorough patient history is the most important aspect of diagnosis, in order to rule out other possible causes of symptoms, such as migraine headaches. Your doctor will examine the head and neck areas for muscle tenderness. It may also be necessary to discuss sources of stress, anxiety or sleep disturbances with your doctor.

Once diagnosed with tension headaches, your health care provider can assist you on a short-term basis by prescribing muscle relaxers or sleep-enhancing drugs. For long-term relief, however, it is important to understand the underlying factors that contribute to your condition. By addressing these factors individually, it is often possible to greatly lessen the severity and frequency of the headaches.

Many health care providers can provide treatments for the root causes of tension headaches. These may include stress management education (biofeedback) as well as physical therapy to improve posture, strength and flexibility. Most treatments are divided into short-term and long-term phases. Short-term treatments can include a mouthguard to protect the teeth against bruxism, or other medicines. Long-term treatment involves patient education techniques, leading to a change in lifestyle. These interventions include:

  • relaxation activities such as breathing through the diaphragm
  • frequent small rechecks of posture and tension level throughout the day
  • sunglasses to help reduce squinting
  • a workstation analysis to make sure that you are in the best possible position at work.