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Tension Headaches


Tension or stress headaches are the most common type of headache alongside dehydration headaches and unfortunately if you are a woman you are far more likely to get a tension headache than a man. These are the headaches that often come at the worst times, when you are tired, hungry or particularly stressed out. Furthermore they can make you very irritable and unpleasant to be around.
The scientists and smart people still aren’t that sure what causes them. Initially they were thought to be caused by muscle tension (hence the inventive name) but they now think it may be the mixing up of signals in the nerve pathways to the brain and/or the misinterpretation of information from the muscles to the brain. Muscle sorenss and tenderness associated with tension headaches may in fact actually be a symptom rather than a cause.
The good news is that although we don’t know what causes them, they can be easily treated and prevented.



  • Mild to moderate pain around the forehead, like a tight band is the classic symptom
  • You may also get mild bilateral pain (pain on both sides) in the back of the neck or top and sides of the head.
  • You may find yourself mildly sensitivity to light/noise like with a gentle hangover
  • Muscle tension in neck, scalp and shoulders
  • Loss of appetite
  • If you’re pain is more of a throbbing on just one side of your head you more likely have a migraine. Especially if the pain is accompanied by other symptoms such as blurred vision or nausea.

Chronic vs Episodic

  • People who suffer from chronic tension headaches get daily headaches or over 15 headaches month
  • Anything under 15 tension headaches a month is referred to as episodic
  • If you fall into the chronic tension headache zone or if your headaches are noticeably disrupting your life, go and see your doc. If necessary he may prescribe higher strength pain killers, muscle relaxants or anti-depressants.

If you do plan to go to your Doctor, make a headache diary and include:

  • Symptoms (not just the headache)
  • Frequency and duration
  • Pain level (1-10 scale)
  • Triggers What helps and what makes worst


Although the exact cause/mechanism of tension headaches is unknown, there are definitely triggers that may lead to the onset of a tension headache. It will be different for everyone but the triggers listed below are some of the more common

  • Poor posture (especially while working at your desk/computer)
  • Fatigue/lack of sleep
  • Emotional stress or anxiety
  • Overexertion (spending the day at Disneyland with your 7 year old cousin)
  • Hunger

Treatment and Prevention

  • Prevention
    • This is obviously your best form of treatment. Learn the things likely to trigger your headaches and try to avoid them. Get 8 hours sleep, eat regularly (carry a snack in your bag just in case you miss lunch), if you get anxious find ways to help you relax (such as meditation and massage)
  •  Sometimes tension headaches are just unavoidable in this case standard over the counter pain relief should help just fine
    • This includes: ibuprofen, paracetemol and aspirin
    • Tip! Don’t wait for your headache to get bad to take pain relief. It will take some time for the pain killers to be absorbed into your blood stream so rather than being a martyr take the pain killers as soon as you feel the headache start and don’t suffer longer than you have to. Your friends and family and co-workers will thank you!

Be careful not to take too much pain relief, use as directed on the package. Not only is overusing pain medication like ibuprofen potentially harmful (it can damage you stomach and cause internal bleeding), it may also cause rebound headaches

Other things that may help

  • Sleep (often this is the best solution)
  • Relaxation
    • Bath or warm shower
    • Massage
    • Alternative treatment such as acupuncture
    • Sex – a number of studies have shown sex to be an effective pain reliever as well a good way to relax. And its fun. Hopefully you don’t fall in the very small unfortunate category of people who experience sex headaches. A headache caused by sexual activity in particular orgasm.

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