Breaking the Grip of Tension Headaches

tension headaches

The pain of a tension headache can last from 30 minutes to seven days. Other symptoms include tenderness, fatigue, insomnia, irritability and poor concentration.

Chronic tension headaches are sometimes associated with depression or anxiety. For the best outcome, treat both the cause and the symptom. Addressing the pain while ignoring the underlying condition is a band-aid approach that can lead to rebound headaches caused by excessive use of painkillers, such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).

Other causes of tension headaches include working or sleeping in awkward positions, poor posture, stress, caffeine, eye strain, colds, the flu, or nasal congestion, fatigue or overexertion, and lack of physical activity. Many people report feeling stressed or hungry just before a headache begins. To identify specific triggers, keep a headache diary, noting factors such as sleep, stress, mood and diet at the time of onset.

Loosen the Grip of Stress with Exercise

Stress is a common source of tension headaches. At work you’re under pressure to make deadlines. At home the bills are mounting and the kids are shouting. Your neck and shoulders tighten up and before long your head is throbbing. You need to stop the action before it reaches that point. Plan ahead and organize your day into those things that have to be done and those that can wait. If you’re a worrywart, make a check list and focus on one task at a time.

Nothing reduces stress and tension like regular aerobic exercise. It relaxes muscles, builds strength and confidence, and triggers the release of endorphins for a natural, stress reducing high. It can also relieve the pain of an existing headache. Whether you walk, bike, run or swim, exercise at least three days a week for a brighter and less stress-defined outlook.

Relax Tense Muscles

Stretching the neck, shoulders and back relaxes the muscles associated with tension headaches. Yoga and progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and then relaxing one muscle at a time) also relieve tension. If your personality won’t tolerate the traditional quiet yoga environment, try it in front of the TV. Depending on your preference, apply an ice pack wrapped in cloth or a warm compress to tense, achy muscles.

If your headaches are chronic, your doctor can prescribe an antidepressant to help stabilize chemicals, such as serotonin, that may be involved. Over-the-counter painkillers are a more conservative approach but should be used cautiously to avoid rebound headaches. Take the smallest dose needed to manage pain. They are a treatment, not a cure.

Keep Your Head Up

Poor, slumping posture strains the neck, back and shoulder muscles. Relieve the tension by holding your shoulders back and your head high. You’ll feel better and move more confidently as the tension loses its grip and slowly melts away.

Headaches are the body's way of saying something is wrong. They're a normal reaction to stress or illness, but if they dominate your day, it's time to take action. Exercise regularly, eat well, practice relaxation techniques, maintain a healthy posture, and don't spend excessive time in front of the computer or television. If you're feeling anxious or depressed, find the help that you deserve.
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