Tension Headaches

WHAT IS A TENSION HEADACHE?

A tension headache, also commonly referred to tension-type headache or stress headache, is the most common kind of headache. It causes mild to moderate pain in your head that feels like a tight band around your forehead. Most people suffering from tension headaches experience episodic headaches, which occur one or two times per month. These headaches, however, can also be chronic that leads to headache episodes lasting for over 15 days per month.

HOW ARE TENSION HEADACHES CAUSED?

The exact cause of tension headaches is yet to be found. Initially, experts used to believe that muscle contractions in the scalp, face and neck, possible due to heightened stress, emotions or tension were the cause of tension headaches. But research suggests otherwise. According to recent theories, though, people with a heightened sensitivity to pain and possibly stress are susceptible to getting tension headaches. Increased muscle tenderness, a common tension headache symptom, may stem from a sensitized pain system.

HOW DO I KNOW I HAVE TENSION HEADACHES?

The most common symptoms of tension headaches are:

  • Tenderness around the scalp, forehead and shoulder muscles
  • Dull head pain
  • Sensation of pressure or tightness across the forehead or on the back or sides of your head

While the pain is usually mild or moderate, it can also sometimes be intense. In these cases, you may think you have a migraine. However, keep in mind that a tension headache doesn’t cause all the symptoms of migraines like vomiting or nausea. There are rare cases in which tension headaches may cause sensitivity to loud noise and light, similar to migraines.

HOW CAN TENSION HEADACHES BE TREATED?

Over-the-counter pain medications, such as Tylenol and an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, like Motrin or Advil) can usually relieve the pain caused by tension headaches. However, if not, patients have two types of treatments available: Preventive or Abortive.

Preventive treatments reduce the frequency and severity of headaches from occurring. They are typically combined with abortive treatments and include options such as:

  • Cardiovascular drugs
  • Antidepressants
  • Antiseizure medications
  • Antihistamines

Abortive treatments don’t reduce the severity, or the amount of headaches that occur, but it can help considerably. The treatments used for abortive treatment include:

  • Butalbital
  • Oxygen
  • Anti-emetics
  • NSAID’s
  • Triptans
  • Opiates
  • Ergots