Tension Headaches

What are tension headaches?

A tension headache is the common term used to describe muscle contraction headaches.  Pain can be sharp, burning, or throbbing at times.  The headaches frequently cause a tightness or “band-like” sensation around the head.   The headaches can also localize in the forehead, temple or in the back of the head and neck.  This pain can stay for hours, days, or even weeks at a time.

What causes tension headaches?

The mechanism of pain involves a tightening of the muscles which support the spine and skull.  There are facial muscles which can be a source of pain also.  Various factors can trigger tension headaches.  The most common sources are cervical (neck) arthritis or cervical strain (injury to the soft tissue of the neck including muscles and ligaments.)  Often muscles will contract to “splint” the area and keep the injured tissue from making painful movements.  Poor posture or prolonged use of muscles can trigger tension headaches.  Holding the head or neck in a stiff or awkward position for a period of time can bring on a tension headache.

What other problems occur with tension headaches?

Sleep problems, such as difficulty falling asleep or waking up, frequently occur with tension headaches.  Depression is also very common.

How do you diagnose a tension headache?

The diagnosis of a tension headache is usually based on the patient’s history and physical examination.  A thorough neurological examination is necessary to rule out other causes of the headaches.  Occasionally diagnostic testing such as x-rays, CT scans or MRI scans are done.

 What is the treatment for tension headaches?

In treating tension headaches, it is important to alleviate the discomfort, attempt to discover and modify or eliminate trigger factors and to increase the patient’s understanding of the physical process of the headache.

Medication is used to treat tension headaches and other associated symptoms.  Non medication therapy is also very useful in treating tension headaches.  Physical therapy, biofeedback, acupuncture and other treatment methods are used with good success.

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