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Tension Headaches Stress Me Out

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

Tension headaches were my constant companion during graduate school. On top of working full-time to support my family, I commuted two hours to school to attend the full-time class load of two professional programs simultaneously, and then drove two more hours home to study (always on about three hours of sleep). I was over-worked, over-tired, and over-stressed – a perfect recipe for tension headaches. And although I recognized what was causing my headaches, I was too busy to do anything about it. I now know that the nice thing about tension headaches is they are pretty easily treated. It just takes little time, patience, and information.

The most common type of headache, tension headaches are caused by a combination of chemical changes in the brain and overly tightened muscles or muscle spasms in the head, face, neck, and shoulders. The result is pain and pressure, usually in the temples, back of the head, and neck. This is all brought about by, you guessed it, tension. This can be in the form of muscle tension (from poor posture or holding an awkward position for a long time), eye strain, hunger, sleep deprivation, or emotional stress.

Nearly everyone will have tension headaches at some point in their life. For most people, they are intermittent, triggered by stressful events. Others develop chronic tension headaches; tension headaches are considered chronic if they manifest 15 days out of the month for several months in a row. If you experience chronic tension headaches, or if the frequency or symptoms of your headaches are increasing, it’s time for a visit to your doctor. They may wish to conduct tests in order to rule out more serious conditions, such as an aneurism or tumor. And this is important – sudden severe headaches, headaches following a head injury, and headaches accompanied by seizures, confusion, loss of coordination, double vision, and other unusual symptoms require emergency medical attention.

In order to best prevent your tension headaches, it’s helpful to keep a headache diary. Whenever you get a headache, take down the date and time, along with what you are doing, how you are feeling, your last meal, and any medications you’re taking. Also make note of the duration and intensity of the headache. As time and your diary progresses, you may begin to notice patterns and be able to identify your headache triggers.

Many times reducing the frequency of tension headaches is as simple as living a healthy lifestyle. Eating a nutritious diet on a regular schedule will minimize imbalances in blood sugar. Exercising reduces blood pressure, improves circulation, and relaxes the body. A full night of restful sleep recharges the body and mind for the next day’s challenges. Additionally, make sure you practice good posture, your glasses have the correct prescription, and – I know this one is tough – put stress in its place.

It’s unrealistic to say we will never get stressed, and stress, when controlled, can increase productivity. But living with constant stress is like always driving a vehicle with 1,000 lbs. of cement in the back – it’s going to eventually break you down. Learn to channel and let go of your stress, whether through exercise, a hobby, therapy, travel, family and friends, church, etc. Or try relaxation activities such as breathing exercises. If you can do this, you will find that everything from your headaches to your job productivity to your relationships will improve.

If you are unable to successfully manage your tension headaches on your own, don’t hesitate to see your physical therapist or doctor. In particular, your physical therapist will be helpful for those seeking effective, non-drug pain relief; they will employ stretching and manual therapy to dispel your tension and thereby relieve your pain. They’ll also teach you techniques to prevent tension headaches in the future.

Don’t let yourself get too busy to take care of your tension headaches. Take just a few simple steps, and you’ll have one less thing to stress about.

You don’t have to live with headache pain. Call 463-022 today for your FREE Headache Pain Assessment!