Tension type headaches are the ones we tend to ignore. You think 'I'll just scoff down two panadol and it'll go away'. Maybe it does. Then again, maybe it'll be back tomorrow. The truth is, Tension Type Headaches are the most common headache disorder world wide, affecting men and women of all ages. And there is plenty more that you can do about them, than just swallowing pain pills.
Tension-type headaches are experienced as a band of pressure around the head.
They are classed as episodic or chronic in nature, depending on whether they occur less or more then 15 days per month.
The How and Why
Current research suggests that Episodic tension-type headaches arise from strained muscles in the head and neck. Chronic tension-type headaches are more likely a result of central neural sensitisation. In laymen terms, the brain creates a strong pain signal in response to a mildly painful stimulus. In both cases the intensity of pain is increased by emotional states such as stress or anxiety.
Triggers can be emotional or physical, or a combination of the two. They may include:
- Emotional upsets
- Anxiety or depression
- Injury to the head or neck
- Poor posture
- Prolonged muscular strain
- Bruxism / Teeth grinding
- Temporomandiular (jaw) joint dysfunction.
What will I experience or feel like?
A tension-type headache is usually experienced as a tight band of pressure around your head. Your pain is likely to be mild to moderate intensity, and can wax and wane over days or weeks. Associated neck or jaw pain is common, but nausea, vomiting, light and sound sensitivity are not. It is also important to consider that depression is present in one third of patients who experience persistent tension headaches. (2) Daily headache patterns will vary. Your headache may occur infrequently and last for a couple of hours, or it may be unrelenting and recurrent, lasting days at a time.
How can I help fix it?
Treatment of acute headaches is aimed at reducing muscle tension in the head and neck in order to relieve pain. Research demonstrates that manual therapies, such as osteopathy, reduce headache frequency and intensity, and improve quality of life.
You can increase the benefits of manual therapy and relieve your headaches by:
- Establishing and avoiding triggers of your tension-type headache.
- Ensuring you get adequate rest, 7-9 hours per night
- Remaining hydrated by drinking 2 litres of water daily and avoiding caffeine
- Seeking help from your GP or psychologist for stress management, anxiety or depression when needed
- Performing gentle self massage to the head and neck for 5-10 minutes
- Applying a heat pack to the back of your neck for 10 minutes at a time.
- Stretching your neck muscles by tilting the neck first forwards and then sideways. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times on each side.
How long will I take to recover?
There is no definitive time frame for the resolution of your headache as it is dependent upon the underlying causes and triggers. Pain resolution of an individual headache can occur within hours or 1-2 days. Learning to avoid your headache triggers and addressing lifestyle factors that contribute to your headaches will take longer but is worth the effort for the improvement in quality of life it will produce.
If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch.
Please be mindful that the information contained above is general in nature and is not intended to replace the direct care and instructions of your practitioner. If you have any questions about your diagnosis or the recommended treatment and management plan prescribed, please contact your practitioner who will be more than happy to discuss your case with you further.
1. Daroff, R., 2016. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Canada: Elsevier.
2. Yanoff, M., 2019. Ophthalmology. 5th ed. US: Elsevier.McMahon, S., 2019. Wall & Melzack's Textbook of Pain. 5th ed. US: Elsevier.