Dealing With Tension Headaches
More than $1 million is spent in Canada each year on over-the-counter medications for headaches. Recent figures indicate that 70-90% of the population suffers from occasional tension-type headaches. There are several types of headaches mind you, but the most common by far is the ‘garden variety’ tension headache, a band-like pressing pain felt on both sides of the head that does not seem to get worse with activity.
The medical term for this type of headache is Episodic Tension-Type Headache. This means that the headache experienced is occasional, as opposed to a chronic daily headache. The list of triggers for episodic headaches is quite long. It includes: poor posture, increased tension in the neck and shoulder muscles, situational stress, sudden easing of stress (go figure), repressed hostility, anger or frustration, anxiety, depression, fatigue, skipped sleep, use of oral contraceptives or estrogen replacement therapy, scents and particulate matter (e.g. perfumes, cigarette smoke) loud sounds, bright sunshine, dehydration, poor diet (esp. eating on the run), excessive worry, temperature or weather changes, and extended periods of study, typing or concentration. Potential food triggers include: caffeine, chocolate, red wine, cured meats, aged cheeses, champagne, milk, lima beans, potato chips, salted nuts, bananas, figs, onions and of course MSG.
The best approach to headache prevention is to look at the list of triggers above and consider which ones might be suspect in your own headache pattern. If you deal with regular headaches, a personal log of foods and activities will help to unravel this mystery. As well, inclusion of B12, magnesium and riboflavin (a.k.a. vitamin B2) in your diet is suggested by many medical sources. Because muscle tension is a primary cause of tension headaches, it is important to look at the ergonomic set-up of your workstation. There is a lot of information out there on office ergonomics. The internet is rich with material on this topic. In particular, I suggest that you look at your workstation measurements, your phone use and computer screen issues. Office Ergo is one such resource.
Okay, so you’ve got a tension headache……what works? Well there are many options, some of which will work with your particular headache and some of which won’t. The best strategy is to try a few suggestions below and see what works best for you. I’m a massage therapist, so of course I’m going to suggest massage. This however is because I have seen it work so many times. Clinical studies also support the fact that regular massage can decrease the intensity and the frequency of headaches. I have seen many chronic headache sufferers’ lives literally transformed by massage therapy.
There is another manual therapy that you can use on yourself called acupressure. There are numerous pressure points and techniques. The best approach is to visit your local library or bookstore for books on acupressure, or do an internet search on the topic. Other alternative therapies for headaches include chiropractic, acupuncture and homeopathy. Some mind-body approaches such as relaxation training, visualization, breathing techniques and biofeedback have demonstrated effectiveness in the treatment of headaches.
Good old-fashioned hydrotherapy (warm foot bath or cold compress to the neck or forehead) can be quite effective as well. As far as herbal remedies go, feverfew is the only herb that has been studied in double-blind fashion. As well, ginger, gingko, valerian root and St. John’s wort are anecdotally reported to be helpful for headaches. Lifestyle changes such as aerobic exercise, sleep improvements, dietary regulation, and smoking cessation make sound physiological sense and are supported by clinical studies. All of these behavioral approaches share the advantages of minimal side effects and negligible cost once the techniques are learned and practiced.
If you deal with chronic headaches, as opposed to occasional episodic events I urge you to pick up a few books on the topic. You shouldn’t have to live with daily headache pain. However, what works for one person doesn’t always end up being effective for another. If your headache is extremely debilitating it is helpful to know that many of the agents used to treat migraines also work well to control and eliminate tension headache pain.
While most headaches are not serious in nature, we have all heard stories of a headache that indicated a more serious underlying medical issue. As a general rule, consult medical care if:
- you have developed a headache following a recent severe accident
- you have developed a headache for the first time and it is no better ten days later
- you have episodes of severe headaches accompanied with nausea and dizziness
- or there is an abrupt change in your headache pattern