Tension Headaches: Highlighting the Facts
It’s not unusual for people who are constantly under a lot of stress to experience tension headaches. The people most at risk for this type of headache are women, especially those whose estrogen levels change dramatically before or during menstruation, or when going through menopause. Also at risk are people who are chronically overworked, sleep too little or too much, or use and abuse drugs or alcohol. If you feel you’re in danger of developing tension-type headaches, consult a headache specialist immediately for proper diagnosis, guidance and treatment.
Tension Headaches: An Overview
Tension headaches are categorized as primary headaches. What that means is that the headache is a problem in itself and not a symptom of any underlying illness. Often, primary headaches are triggered by things like stress, particular actions, or certain foods that somehow alter a person’s neurotransmitters or the chemicals in the brain that control sensations like pain. They are episodic and recurring in nature, and at times the headaches become chronic. Since this type of headache has no underlying illness to blame for the pain, it doesn’t pose any serious health issues. However, primary headaches have the tendency to be quite severe and this can affect a person’s ability to perform daily tasks.
A tension-type headache is defined as a dull pain that feels like a vice or a band is putting pressure around the head. The pain is felt all over and not isolated to just one side of the head, like migraines and cluster headaches. This type of headache often begins at the back of the head and makes its way forward. Also, people who experience tension-type headaches usually feel tightness and soreness of the muscles in the jaw, neck and shoulder area.
Little is known about the true cause of tension-type headaches. It was once believed that muscle contractions in the neck, shoulders, jaw and scalp, produce the pain, but recent studies show that this may not be the case. These studies also reveal that tension headaches are similar to migraines in such a way that certain stressors can trigger an episode by affecting the neurotransmitters in the brain causing the pain. It is possible that the tightening of the muscles contribute to the changes in the brain’s neurotransmitters; however, in cases of tension-type headaches where there is not muscle tension involved, it is hard to tell what really causes the headaches.
Tension-type Headache Triggers
This type of headache can be triggered by a number of factors or stressors. In any case, unless these stressors are eliminated, tension-type headaches are likely to recur. If these stressors are constantly present, there’s a good chance that a tension-type headache will become a chronic condition. The most common triggers include:
- Constant or too much stress
- Anxiety or depression
- Overexertion during physical activities
- Staying in or holding one’s head in one position for long periods of time
- Not getting enough sleep, or in some cases, oversleeping
- Teeth grinding or jaw clenching
- Skipping meals
Treating Tension-Type Headaches
There is no clear-cut cure for tension headaches except for avoiding the triggers that may cause the pain, but this condition is very much manageable. Most of the time, tension-type headaches can be dealt with easily by taking over-the-counter pain medication; however, overuse of these drugs can cause rebound headaches instead of relief. In rare cases where OTC drugs fail to provide alleviation, doctors would normally prescribe stronger pain relievers and in cases where muscle tightness is involved, a doctor may also recommend muscle relaxants to help ease the symptoms of tension-type headaches.
While this type of headache is treatable, and in most cases the pain is quite manageable with or without the help of medication, it is important to consult a doctor or a headache specialist in order to get the proper treatment for tension headaches.