Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are a common type of headache characterized by a dull, achy pain and a sensation of tightness or pressure around the head.

Tension Headaches
Tension Headaches
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Your Guide to Understanding Tension Headaches

What is Tension Headaches?

Tension headaches, also known as stress headaches, are one of the most common types of headaches that people experience. They are characterized by a dull, achy pain that wraps around the head and can feel like a tight band squeezing the skull. Unlike migraines, which are often accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea or sensitivity to light and sound, tension headaches typically do not have these associated features.

The exact cause of tension headaches is not fully understood, but they are believed to be related to muscle tension and stress. Factors such as poor posture, prolonged sitting or working in front of a computer, anxiety, emotional stress, and lack of sleep can contribute to the development of tension headaches. Additionally, certain lifestyle habits such as excessive caffeine consumption, skipping meals, or dehydration may also trigger or worsen these headaches.

How can Physiotherapy help treat Tension Headaches?

Physiotherapy services offer a unique approach to alleviate tension headaches. Physiotherapists focus on identifying and addressing the underlying causes of the headaches, such as muscle tension and postural imbalances. Through various techniques like manual therapy, stretching, and exercise, physiotherapists can help relax and release tension in the muscles of the neck, shoulders, and upper back, which are often associated with tension headaches.

They may also provide education on ergonomics and posture correction to prevent future headaches. Additionally, physiotherapists can teach relaxation techniques and stress management strategies to minimize the frequency and severity of tension headaches. By taking a holistic approach, physiotherapy can effectively alleviate tension headaches and improve overall well-being.

What causes Tension Headaches?

Tension headaches are typically caused by a combination of factors related to muscle tension and stress. When the muscles in the head, neck, and shoulders become tense or contracted, it can lead to the development of these headaches. There are several common triggers and contributing factors that can lead to muscle tension and the onset of tension headaches.

One primary cause is poor posture, especially when sitting or working for long periods without taking breaks to stretch or change positions. Maintaining an incorrect posture can strain the muscles in the neck and upper back, leading to tension headaches. Emotional stress and anxiety also play a significant role in triggering these headaches. When we experience stress, our bodies respond by tensing up, including the muscles in the head and neck.

What treatments might help Tension Headaches?

The treatment for tension headaches aims to alleviate symptoms and improve overall well-being. Here are some ways treatment can help improve tension headaches:

  • Stress management: Since stress is a common trigger for tension headaches, adopting healthy stress management techniques can be beneficial. This may include practicing relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga, to reduce overall stress levels.
  • Lifestyle modifications: Making positive changes to your lifestyle can help improve tension headaches. This may involve maintaining a regular sleep schedule, getting regular exercise, staying hydrated, and adopting healthy eating habits.
  • Over-the-counter pain medication: Non-prescription pain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), can provide temporary relief from tension headaches. It is important to follow the recommended dosage and consult with a healthcare professional if you have any concerns or if the headaches persist.
  • Muscle relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques such as gentle massage, applying heat or cold therapy to the affected areas, or taking warm baths can help relax tense muscles and reduce headache symptoms.
  • Physical therapy: In some cases, physical therapy sessions that focus on posture correction, stretching exercises, and strengthening of specific muscles can be helpful in managing tension headaches.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of therapy that can assist in identifying and managing stressors and developing coping strategies. It can be effective in reducing the frequency and severity of tension headaches.

Signs of Tension Headaches:

Tension headaches have certain characteristic signs that can help identify them. Here are some common signs to look out for:

  • Mild to moderate pain: Tension headaches typically cause a dull, aching pain that feels like a tight band or pressure around the head. The pain is usually not severe and doesn't pulsate.
  • Location of pain: The pain from tension headaches often starts in the forehead area and gradually spreads to the sides or back of the head. It can also affect the neck and shoulders.
  • Duration of headaches: Tension headaches can last anywhere from a few hours to several days. They tend to be episodic, occurring periodically over time.
  • Muscle tenderness: Individuals with tension headaches may experience muscle tenderness or sensitivity in the scalp, neck, and shoulder muscles.
  • No associated symptoms: Unlike migraines, tension headaches usually do not cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light and sound.

Symptoms of Tension Headaches:

Tension headaches can cause a range of symptoms that can vary from person to person. Here are some common symptoms associated with tension headaches:

  • Head pain: Tension headaches typically cause a dull, aching pain or pressure in the head. The pain is often described as a tight band or vice-like sensation around the forehead, temples, or back of the head.
  • Muscle tension or tightness: Many people experience muscle tension or tightness in the neck, shoulders, and scalp during a tension headache. This can contribute to the overall discomfort.
  • Mild to moderate intensity: Tension headaches usually have a mild to moderate level of pain. They are not typically severe or debilitating like migraines.
  • Duration: Tension headaches can last anywhere from a few hours to several days. Some individuals may experience them episodically, with periods of relief in between, while others may have chronic tension headaches that occur more frequently.
  • Sensitivity to light or sound: In some cases, people with tension headaches may be mildly sensitive to bright lights, loud noises, or strong odors. However, this sensitivity is usually less pronounced compared to migraines.
  • No nausea or vomiting: Unlike migraines, tension headaches typically do not cause nausea, vomiting, or other gastrointestinal symptoms.
  • Daily activities unaffected: Most individuals with tension headaches can still carry out their daily activities, although they may experience some discomfort or distraction from the pain.
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When is the right time to see a Physiotherapist for Tension Headaches?

It is generally recommended to see a physiotherapist for tension headaches when the headaches become frequent, persistent, and significantly impact your daily life. If you are experiencing tension headaches that occur on a regular basis and are affecting your ability to work, concentrate, or enjoy your usual activities, it may be a good time to seek professional help.

Additionally, if you have tried self-care measures such as relaxation techniques, over-the-counter pain medications, and lifestyle modifications, but the tension headaches continue to persist or worsen, it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional. They can assess your condition, provide a proper diagnosis, and offer targeted treatment strategies to alleviate your symptoms.

Meet our Lead Registered Physiotherapist

Brittany Pereira

Brittany Pereira

Registered Physiotherapist

Registered Physiotherapist with a degree from the University of Toronto

Brittany enjoys working with patients across age groups and backgrounds to help them move better, get stronger, understand their bodies and ultimately, feel more confident. She combines her knowledge and clinical experience to best serve her patients.

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Physiotherapist Brittany Pereira working with client at Anchor Health and Performance Clinic Mississauga
Interior Lobby at Anchor Health and Performance Clinic in Mississauga