What is a tension headache?
Tension headaches are dull pain, tightness, or pressure around your forehead or the back of your head and neck. Some people say it feels like a clamp squeezing the skull. Often called stress headaches, they’re the most common type for adults.
There are two types:
- Episodic tension headaches happen less than 15 days per month.
- Chronic tension headaches happen more than 15 days a month.
These headaches can last from 30 minutes to a few days. The episodic kind usually starts gradually, often in the middle of the day.
Chronic ones come and go over a longer period of time. The pain may get stronger or ease up throughout the day, but it’s almost always there.
Although your head hurts, tension headaches usually don't keep you from your daily activities, and they don’t affect your vision, balance, or strength.
What Are the Symptoms?
A few common ones include:
- Mild to moderate pain or pressure in the front, top, or sides of the head
- Headache that starts later in the day
- Trouble sleeping
- Feeling very tired
- Trouble focusing
- Mild sensitivity to light or noise
- Muscle aches
Unlike migraine headaches, you won’t have other nerve symptoms, such as muscle weakness or blurred vision. And they don’t usually cause severe sensitivity to light or noise, stomach pain, nausea, or vomiting.
Where Does It Hurt?
This type of headache can:
- Start at the back of your head and spread forward
- Become a band of dull pressure or squeezing pain around your entire head
- Affect both sides of your head equally
- Make the muscles in your neck, shoulders, and jaw feel tight and sore
What Causes Tension Headaches?
There's no single cause for them. Most of the time, they’re triggered by stress, whether from work, school, family, friends, or other relationships.
Episodic ones are usually set off by a single stressful situation or a buildup of stress. Daily stress can lead to the chronic kind.
This type of headache doesn’t run in families. Some people get them because of tightened muscles in the back of the neck and scalp. This muscle tension can come from:
- Not enough rest
- Bad posture
- Emotional or mental stress, including depression
- Low iron levels
- Alcohol use
- Jaw or dental problems
Preventing future tension headaches
Since tension headaches are often caused by specific triggers, identifying the factors that cause your headaches is one way to prevent future episodes. A headache diary can help you determine the cause of your tension headaches.
- daily meals
- any situations that trigger stress
For each day that you have a tension headache, make a note of it. After several weeks or months, you may be able to make a connection. For example, if your journal shows that headaches occurred on days when you ate a particular food, that food may be your trigger.
Relaxation Techniques to Relieve Headaches
Here are a few relaxation exercises. But first, be sure that you have a quiet location that is free of distractions and a comfortable body position. As hard as it sounds, try to block out worries and distracting thoughts.
- Rhythmic breathing: If your breathing is short and hurried, slow it down by taking long, slow breaths. Inhale slowly then exhale slowly. Count slowly to five as you inhale, and then count slowly to five as you exhale. As you exhale slowly, pay attention to how your body naturally relaxes. Recognizing this change will help you to relax even more.
- Deep breathing: Imagine a spot just below your navel. Breathe into that spot, filling your abdomen with air. Let the air fill you from the abdomen up, then let it out, like deflating a balloon. With every long, slow exhalation, you should feel more relaxed.
- Visualized breathing: Find a comfortable place where you can close your eyes, and combine slowed breathing with your imagination. Picture relaxation entering your body and tension leaving your body. Breathe deeply, but in a natural rhythm. Visualize your breath coming into your nostrils, going into your lungs and expanding your chest and abdomen. Then, visualize your breath going out the same way. Continue breathing, but each time you inhale, imagine that you are breathing in more relaxation. Each time you exhale imagine that you are getting rid of a little more tension.
- Progressive muscle relaxation: Switch your thoughts to yourself and your breathing. Take a few deep breaths, exhaling slowly. Mentally scan your body. Notice your headache, if you have one, and other areas that feel tense or cramped. Quickly loosen up these areas. Let go of as much tension as you can. Rotate your head in a smooth, circular motion once or twice. (Stop any movements that cause pain!) Roll your shoulders forward and backward several times. Let all of your muscles completely relax. Recall a pleasant thought for a few seconds. Take another deep breath and exhale slowly. You should feel relaxed.
- Mental imagery relaxation: Mental imagery relaxation, or guided imagery, is a proven form of focused relaxation that helps create harmony between the mind and body. Guided imagery coaches you in creating calm, peaceful images in your mind -- a "mental escape." Identify your self-talk, that is, what you are saying to yourself about what is going on with your migraines or headaches. It is important to identify negative self-talk and develop healthy, positive self-talk. By making affirmations, you can counteract negative thoughts and emotions. Here are some positive statements you can practice.
- Let go of things I cannot control.
- I am healthy, vital, and strong.
- There is nothing in the world I cannot handle.
- All my needs are met.
- I am completely and utterly safe.
- Every day in every way I am getting stronger.
There are also gentle exercises that can help alleviate head pain related to stress and tight muscles in the upper back or neck.
The lateral flexion (ear to shoulder) stretch aims to relieve tension on the neck muscles. Gently bend your neck to the left side, attempting to touch your left ear to your shoulder. Pause when a stretch is felt in the right side of your neck. Use your hand to gently create a further stretch. The gentle pressure shouldn’t cause pain. Hold this position for about 30 seconds. Do it on the other side. Do 10 of this routine for each side.
Lie down, breath in and out slowly. Rotate your head in a smooth circular way twice and then roll shoulders forward and back several times. Do these repeatedly until you feel your muscles relaxed. Take a deep breath, breath out slowly to finish off.
· Wind Relieving Pose for Tension Headache
The wind relieving pose focuses on relieving the spine and neck area. This exercise can help excess gas from the body. Yoga basics recommend this routine to do the wind relieving pose for tension headache.
Lying on your back, inhale both knees into your chest. Wrap the arms around the knees, holding on to opposite elbows, forearms, wrists or fingers. Tuck the chin into the chest with the head on the floor. Press the sacrum and tailbone down into the floor as you pull the knees into the chest using the arms. Press the shoulders and the back of the neck down into the floor, trying to get the back and whole spine flat to the floor. Relax the legs, feet and hips. Breathe and hold 4-8 breaths, breathing deeply into the belly, actively pressing it against the thighs on the inhalation. To release: exhale and release the arms and legs to the floor.
This post is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered therapy. This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local doctor/psychologist or psychiatrist or the SADAG Mental Health Line on 011 234 4837. If necessary, please phone the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or sms 31393.