Often headaches are the body’s signal or communication to us that stress is excessive and something has to change. For example our headaches can tell us that our sitting posture needs to change, we need to get more sleep and we need to take a break from work or drink more water.
Tension headaches, also known as muscle contraction headache is the most common type of headache we experience in our life time, characterized by pain or discomfort in the head, scalp or neck and are usually associated with muscle tightness in these areas. But these headaches are not to be mistaken for migraines or chronic sinus headaches. As tension headaches are a temporary or episodic and normally (but not always?) result in the form of either short term or long term stressors such as school, work, family and lifestyle choices.
Activities in which the head or neck is held in one position for a long time, such as extensive hours of study, typing or sleeping with the neck in an unusual position, can all trigger tension headaches. The long term cause of tension headaches include, but are not limited to, poor posture, excessive smoking and inadequate sleep.
While the occasional tension headache are generally mild to moderate and can usually be treated without consulting your doctor, they can easy be mistake them for more serious headaches. In order to accurately assess if you are experiencing tension headaches, you can refer to this useful guide below.
Tension headaches can be difficult to distinguish from migraines, especially if you have frequent episodic tension headaches, you can also have migraines. Unlike some forms of migraine, tension headaches usually aren’t associated with visual disturbances, nausea or vomiting. Although physical activity typically aggravates migraine pain, it doesn’t make tension headache pain worse. An increased sensitivity to either light or sound can occur with a tension headache, but these aren’t common symptoms.
Tension headaches may be self-treated in many ways, including the use of over the counter painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol. While these medications may be recommended to cure some types of headaches, it is more beneficial to avoid them when dealing with mild tension headaches that appear frequently. This is because the relief provided by these over the counter painkillers is only temporary and frequently using them can cause adverse effects, such as further headaches, heart and gastrointestinal complications. Additionally these painkillers can also lose their effectiveness over time and ideally should not be used more than nine days in a month.
“Remember that pain medications aren’t a substitute for recognizing and dealing with stressors that may be triggering headaches” Medical Education and Research
While painkillers may be the most obvious go to for treating your everyday headaches, more natural, health alternatives; from lifestyle changes to muscle relaxation techniques, can actually do the job better, with longer lasting effects.
Alternatives to Medication
Change In Lifestyle – Because tension headaches are often a result of lifestyle choices, an effective way to eliminate recurring tension headaches is eliminate the habits that cause them. Long term causes of tension headaches include;
- Alcohol and caffeine use
- Excessive smoking
- Poor posture
- Eye strain
- Dental problems, such as teeth grinding and jaw clenching
Mind-Body Techniques – If you are suffering from stressors that may be causing internal pressure, it is important to target the source of stress and try to alleviate it. This can be done through a variety of relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, self-hypnosis, psychotherapy, creative expression, acupuncture and taking time for yourself to do something you enjoy.
- Deep Breathing – Imagine a spot just below your tummy button. Breathe into that spot slowly and deeply through the nose for 4 seconds, hold for seven seconds and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. Repeat this three times.
- Meditation – Find a quiet spot where you can sit or lie. Focus your attention on your breathing or a positive thought that will take your mind away from any anxieties you may have. This will help your body and your mind relaxes, reducing your stress levels.
Exercise – Physical activity, as simple as taking a walk, will increase your circulation, allowing more blood to travel to your heart and brain; the brain is then supplied with oxygen and subsequently re-energized. When sitting for long periods of time, make sure you take time to move and stretch frequently to reduce your muscles cramping and tensing up. Simple stretches you can do are; stretching your arms above your head, rolling your neck from side to side , forward and back, roll your shoulders forward and back, stand and touch your toes, as well as taking three breaths with very long exhales.
Posture – Poor posture is very common cause of muscle tension. To avoid strain in the muscles while sitting hold your shoulders back, make sure your head isn’t slumped over and orient your thighs parallel to the ground.
Muscle Relaxation – Because muscle aches in the neck are correlated with tension headaches, muscles relaxation techniques such as applying heat pads on the neck to sooth the muscles can be effective. Massage therapy can physically relieve tension from headaches, reduces stiffness in the muscles of the shoulders, head and neck, thereby relaxing and increasing blood flow to these areas. A quick and easy massaging technique is pressing the pressure points of the neck just below the base of the skull for a few minutes.
Aromatherapy – Smelling or applying essential oils to the skin assist the brain in relaxation and help alter pain perception. Massaging a few drops of peppermint, eucalyptus or rosemary oil into the nape of the neck, temples or forehead can alleviate headache pain related to stress and tension.
When to See a Doctor?
If your headache is severe and you are experiencing other symptoms as well, I recommend that you consult your doctor. These symptoms could be;
- Headache starts suddenly and is worsened by physical activity.
- Moderate to severe pain in areas other than the neck muscle (such as the eye, cheekbones and bridge of the nose).
- Nausea or vomiting, abdominal pain, upset stomach, loss of appetite.
- Blurred vision, bright flashing dots or lights.
- Nasal discharge, fever, swelling of ears or face
Do you often suffer from tension headaches and have you found a natural alternative that work for you to reduce the amount of tension headaches you experience?