Tension Headache Symptoms, Relief, Treatment and Causes

Tension headache definition and facts

  • Tension headache is the most common type of headache.
  • Although the precise cause of tension headache is unknown, there are factors that seem to contribute to tension headaches, such as
  • Different conditions may contribute to tension headaches such as vision problems or eye strain, overexertion, muscle strains caused by poor posture have all been associated with development of tension headache.
  • While certain foods (processed or aged foods, chocolate, red wine) can trigger migraine headache, in some cases head and neck movement or physical exertion might trigger a migraine; this is not typical of tension headache.
  • Some individuals have both migraine and tension headache; additionally, tension headache can trigger migraine pain, and may be relieved by migraine medications. Symptoms of migraine include
    • light and sound sensitivity,
    • nausea or
    • vomiting, and
    • (often one-sided) throbbing head pain which worsens with exertion
  • Both tension headaches and migraines are diagnosed by physical examination and headache history of the patient.
  • Treatments for tension headaches can include OTC and prescription pain relievers, exercise (including formal physical therapy), stress management and relaxation techniques, and alternative therapies.




Migraine or Headache? Migraine Symptoms, Triggers, Treatment


Tension Headache Symptoms: Neck Pain

Pain in the neck can be more than just a hassle. Neck pain can come from disorders and diseases of any structure in the neck. There are seven vertebrae that are the bony building blocks of the spine in the neck (the cervical vertebrae) that surround the spinal cord and canal. Between these vertebrae are discs and nearby pass the nerves of the neck. Within the neck, structures include the neck muscles, arteries, veins, lymph glands, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, esophagus, larynx, and trachea. Disease of any of these structures can lead to neck pain.

Neck pain is medically referred to as cervicalgia. Neck pain can be associated with:

  • headaches,
  • tingling in the arms,
  • muscle pain,
  • fever,
  • stiff neck,
  • throat pain,
  • tenderness,
  • weakness of the arms.

What is a tension headache?

Headache — a condition so common it’s the punch line for a number of jokes, but when you’re experiencing a headache, it’s no laughing matter.

When most people discuss headache, they’re typically referring to the most frequently experienced type of headache, a tension headache (also known as tension-type or stress headache). Almost half of adults experienced a headache in the past year; fortunately, for the majority of those individuals, the headache was mild, short-lived, and likely fell into the category of tension headache.

Children and teens can experience tension headache; with a significant percentage of children having experienced tension headache by age 15. Females are often diagnosed with tension headaches (more often, about twice as often) than males.

What are the signs and symptoms of a tension headache?

Most tension headaches occur infrequently, and are usually short-lived (resolves within minutes to a few hours). In rare cases the headache may last for many days. A tension headaches that occur more than 15 days each month are referred to as chronic tension headache.

Tension headache pain

  • The pain of chronic tension headache tends to wax and wane in severity.
  • The pain associated with tension headache typically impacts the whole head, but may begin in the back of the head or above the eyebrows.
  • Some people experience a cap or band-like sensation which encircles their skull, while others describe their pain as a muscle tension in their neck or shoulder regions.
  • The pain is frequently described as constant and pressure-like.
  • The pain tends to come on gradually and even at maximum intensity is not incapacitating.
  • Most people who have a tension headache are able to continue their daily activities despite the pain.

Other tension headache symptoms

Are tension headaches associated with symptoms of other types of headache?

Tension headaches are not associated with nausea or vomiting, and do not have symptoms like flashing lights, blind spots, or numbness or weakness of the arms or legs which precede the headache. These symptoms can help distinguish tension headaches from other types of headaches (for example, migraine headaches).

What causes tension headaches?

The exact cause of tension headache isn’t known; and many factors probably play a role in why people develop headache. These factors may include:

  • lack of sleep,
  • skipping meals, or
  • increased stress (leading to a frequent description of these headaches as stress headaches).

Underlying diseases or conditions may frequently cause a headache, for example:

  • eye strain,
  • muscular tension caused by poor posture,
  • over exertion, or
  • anxiety.

In children, headache may be seen as a response to changes in school or home situations such as:

  • a new sibling,
  • testing at school, or
  • social isolation.

How are tension headaches treated and diagnosed?

Tension headaches are diagnosed based on the patient’s reported history of the headache and physical examination. There is no test to specifically confirm tension headache. Because the physical examination in patients with tension headache is generally normal, additional testing such as CT scan or MRI scan usually isn’t required. Some basic blood work may be done to confirm that no underlying abnormality is present.

Treatment for tension headaches include prescription medications, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, combination drugs containing aspirin, acetaminophen, caffeine, and stress management.

Prescription medication for tension headaches

If a diagnosis of chronic tension headache is made or suspected, prescription medications may be used in an effort to lessen the frequency and decrease the severity of the headaches. Medications used include antidepressants and antiseizure drugs. A doctor can help determine which medicine is best for you.

OTC medicine for tension headaches

Many people treat tension headache on their own, using OTC (over-the-counter) medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Motrin), or combination medications containing acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine (Excedrin). While these medications can be effective and when taken as directed are safe for most people, overuse can lead to headaches which are more frequent and severe. This can occur if these agents are used more than 2 days each week routinely. If tension headache occurs during pregnancy, the patient should contact her physician about medications that are safe to use.

  • Products which contain aspirin should not be given to children due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome.
  • Chronic use of acetaminophen, or use of acetaminophen in large amounts may lead to liver toxicity (current recommended maximal dose is 3 grams per 24 hours), and a number of medications are combined with acetaminophen so patients should discuss all OTC drugs they are taking with their doctors.

Home remedies and cures for tension headaches

  • Alternative treatments or therapies: Alternative therapies such as a hot compress or an ice pack may provide substantial benefit for some individuals.
  • Hydrate: Sometimes headaches can be triggered by mild dehydration or lack of food; if so, drinking some non-caffeinated fluids or eating something may help.
  • Flaxseed: People who eat flaxseed, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, may experience a decrease in headaches. This is thought to be related to the anti-inflammatory properties of the omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Peppermint or lavender oil: Inhaling the scent of peppermint oil or lavender oil may help decrease headache pain (lavender oil should not be consumed orally).
  • Scalp massage: A scalp massage is easily done and may provide significant relief; concentrating efforts over the temporal regions or the occipital area (the back of the scalp) may lead to the best response.
  • Whole-body massage: Whole body massage may provide relief.
  • Stress management: If stress seems to be a trigger, learning stress-management techniques or relaxation techniques can provide substantial benefit.
  • Exercise: Exercise, whether regular aerobic activities or specific movements to improve posture, has been shown to be quite effective in decreasing the frequency of tension headaches.

Managing stress

For people who experience recurrent tension headache, stress management techniques have been an effective way of helping to decrease headache frequency and severity. This can include regular exercise, deep breathing techniques, and relaxation training. Other non-medicinal approaches can include massage therapy, heat, ice, or acupuncture. Learning to identify stressful situations which trigger headache and taking steps to avoid these is also a useful strategy for many individuals.

Can tension headaches be prevented?

Often, the best defense is a good offense and this approach is frequently effective when trying to prevent tension headache. Identifying headache triggers and then attempting to avoid or modify those triggers can be a successful strategy to decrease or even eliminate a tension headache. Some people find that scheduled exercise and eating on a regular basis is beneficial. Learning and practicing relaxation techniques, including deep breathing exercises, directed relaxation of specific muscles, or meditation, can also be effective.

See your doctor if any of the following situations occur:

  • If a person experiences regular headaches or if they have changed in severity, location or frequency
  • If a person experiences a headache that is very different from his or her usual headaches
  • If previously helpful treatments are no longer effective
  • If someone is experiencing “The worst headache of my life” they need to be evaluated emergently.




Migraine or Headache? Migraine Symptoms, Triggers, Treatment


Medically Reviewed on 1/30/2018

References

REFERENCES:

Blanda, M, MD. “Tension Headache.” Medscape. Updated: Nov 21, 2017.
<https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/792384-overview>

Taylor, FR, MD. “Tension-type headache in adults: Pathophysiology, clinical features, and diagnosis.” UpToDate. Updated: Nov 02, 2017.
<https://www.uptodate.com/contents/tension-type-headache-in-adults-pathophysiology-clinical-features-and-diagnosis>

Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society (IHS). The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition (beta version). Cephalalgia 2013; 33:629.


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    WEDNESDAY, April 4, 2018 (HealthDay News) — Many adults with diabetes don’t see the dentist often enough, even though they’re at increased risk for gum disease, researchers say.

    In a new study, investigators analyzed data from just over 2.5 million American adults who took part in an annual federal government health survey.

    The survey results showed that people with diabetes or prediabetes were least likely to visit the dentist. The study included about 248,000 diabetics, 30,500 people with prediabetes and over 2.2 million without diabetes.

    Study author Huabin Luo, of East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., was concerned by the results. “Those who need dental care the most seem to be the least likely to have it,” said Luo, an assistant professor of public health.

    People with diabetes are at increased risk for gum disease, which can hamper blood-sugar control and speed the progression of diabetes, the study authors explained.

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    According to the study’s senior author, Bei Wu, “For people living with diabetes, regular dental check-ups — paired with proactive dental and diabetes self-care — are important for maintaining good oral health.” Wu is director of Global Health and Aging Research at New York University’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing in New York City.

    “Regular dental visits provide opportunities for prevention, early detection, and treatment of periodontal [gum] disease, which can potentially help with blood-glucose control and preventing complications from diabetes,” Wu explained in an NYU news release.

    Health care workers should encourage people with diabetes to visit a dentist at least once a year, she suggested. “Increasing access to dental services is vital to achieving this goal,” she added.

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    MedicalNews
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      TUESDAY, Jan. 2, 2018 (HealthDay News) — As an Arctic front envelops much of the United States, the American Heart Association wants folks to know that shoveling snow in sub-freezing temperatures can be hard on the heart, especially for those with heart disease.

      Here are some shoveling safety tips from the association:

      • When shoveling, take frequent breaks so you don’t put too much stress on your heart. Assess how you feel during those breaks.
      • Don’t drink alcohol before, during or immediately after shoveling. Alcohol can increase your sensation of warmth, and cause you to underestimate the amount of strain your body is feeling.
      • To prevent hypothermia (a dangerous drop in body temperature), wear layers of warm clothing that trap your body heat. Wear a hat to prevent the loss of body heat through your head.
      • If you have a medical concern or question, or have symptoms of a medical condition such as heart disease or diabetes, you should consult a doctor before shoveling or exercising in cold weather.
      • Know the warning signs of heart attack. But even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, have it checked out. Don’t wait to call 9-1-1. Minutes matter in a heart attack, and fast action can be a lifesaver.
      • Learn CPR. It can significantly improve a victim’s chances of survival. If an adult collapses, call 9-1-1 and begin pushing hard and fast in the middle of the victim’s chest until help arrives, the heart association said.

      — Robert Preidt

      MedicalNews
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        Conceiving Despite IUD Use Is Tied to Higher Odds for Pregnancy Complications

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        TUESDAY, Jan. 9, 2018 (HealthDay News) — Millions of women use an IUD as a safe, reliable means of birth control. But a new study finds that in rare cases where conception occurs despite IUD use, the rate of obstetric complications may rise.

        “Because of the elevated risks of severe, adverse short-term perinatal complications, we recommend careful monitoring of any women who conceive while using an IUD,” said study lead researcher Dr. Gali Pariente. She’s in the division of obstetrics and gynecology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.

        Pariente’s group tracked pregnancy outcomes for almost 222,000 women who delivered babies from 1991 to 2014.

        Some women became pregnant despite the use of an IUD — an intrauterine contraceptive device. There were 203 women who had an IUD removed early in the pregnancy and 149 who retained the IUD throughout the pregnancy.

        According to the study, rates of a number of pregnancy complications were higher for women who conceived while using an IUD. These complications included preterm delivery (about 14 percent of women who’d used an IUD vs. just under 7 percent of those who hadn’t); bacterial infection (5 percent vs. 0.6 percent); low birth weight babies (11.3 percent vs. 6.6 percent), and miscarriage (2 percent vs. 0.5 percent).

        “We believe this is the first report tracking children born to mothers using an IUD over a long time frame,” Pariente said in a university news release.

        IUDs are the most popular form of reversible birth control worldwide, and the preferred method for 23 percent of women who use contraception, according to a 2015 United Nations report.

        Two obstetrics experts in the United States said the study offers women valuable information, but they stressed that IUDs remain a safe form of contraception.

        Dr. Jill Rabin is co-chief of ambulatory care for Women’s Health Programs at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y. She called IUDs “a very reliable method of birth control, but even the best birth control can fail.”

        In rare instances, an IUD can fail because its position shifts in the uterus, the device is expelled by the body, or if the IUD simply becomes too old, Rabin said.

        But failure rates are only about 1 percent, so “women should not be worried,” Rabin said.

        Dr. Mitchell Kramer is chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Huntington Hospital in Huntington, N.Y. He said that while the concerns highlighted in the study are “important,” the findings do not “diminish the importance or reliability of the IUD as an important and efficacious method of contraception.

        “It is important that this study is not understood as a condemnation of IUD use,” Kramer said, “but simply identifies a specific small group of IUD users who experience contraceptive failure who are at increased perinatal risk that require careful follow-up during prenatal care.”

        The study is slated for presentation Jan. 9 at a Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine meeting, in Dallas. Findings presented at medical meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

        — Robert Preidt

        MedicalNews
        Copyright © 2018 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

        SOURCES: Jill Rabin, M.D., co-chief, division of ambulatory care, Women’s Health Programs-PCAP Services, Northwell Health, New Hyde Park, N.Y.; Mitchell S. Kramer, M.D., chairman, department of obstetrics and gynecology, Huntington Hospital, Huntington, N.Y.; Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, news release, Jan. 8, 2018


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