Physical, psychological and environmental factors play a role in headache pain, but we do have some control over them. You can exercise, get adequate rest, correct bad physical habits, avoid provocative substances in your diet and surroundings, and take an analgesic such as Advil, to alleviate headache pain. These measures, along with relaxation, can help you relieve and perhaps prevent a headache.
Causes of tension headaches and how to reduce or prevent pain
There are several underlying factors that contribute to tension headaches. The most common factors fit into three categories: physical, psychological and environmental. Recognizing what causes your headache is the first step in reducing or preventing pain.
Lack of sleep, hunger, poor posture and eyestrain can be tension headache causes. Get adequate rest, don't skip meals and be aware of the following guidelines to help avoid poor posture and eyestrain.
- Don't slouch. This forces the body out of alignment, causing the head and neck muscles to contract. Correct your posture by sitting up straight with your feet flat on the floor. Keep the shoulders back and the head erect. Your head accounts for about 10% of your body weight; if you keep it forward or down, you overwork and stiffen the supporting muscles of the neck and upper back.
- Don't sit too long in one position. Stretch your arms above your head; then, while keeping both arms up, alternate each arm in reaching toward the ceiling, as if you were climbing a ladder. Rotate the shoulders in a circular motion, forward, then backward. Then, starting with the head erect and facing forward with shoulders back and down, lower (don't twist) your head slowly to the right as far as it will go; then repeat to the left. Finally, rotate the head slowly in a circle - first clockwise five times, and then counter-clockwise five times.
- Don't sleep in a crooked position. This can stiffen the head and neck muscles and cause them to contract. Try sleeping in one of the following positions. The first is on your back, with a pillow supporting the curve of the small of the neck; your head should be supported so it is not higher than the neck. The second position is the fetal position: on your side, with knees bent, with a small pillow between them to keep your hips straight. The side of your neck and head should be supported by a pillow, not by your shoulder. The idea is to keep the head, neck and spine aligned.
Read with sufficient light. If you work at a computer, however, glare from overhead lights can contribute to eye fatigue. Angle your computer monitor away from the light or use a glare screen. Take short periods of rest to avoid strain.
Allergy or sensitivity to substances in our environment can cause muscle contraction or vascular headaches. Known allergens and sensitizers run the gamut from nicotine in tobacco to everyday foods and food additives. Some common foods that have been linked to headaches include cheese (except cottage), chocolate, citrus, onions, eggplant, bay leaf, chilli, cinnamon and foods that are fried, fatty, pickled or processed. Coloring agents or flavour enhancers that can provoke tension or vascular headaches can be found in salami, hot dogs, bacon, ham, dairy products, beer and wine. The flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) can provoke headaches. Caffeine in coffee, tea, carbonated beverages and chocolate can lead to headaches if you consume an excess amount, or if you abruptly stop using it. Alcohol in wine, champagne, beer and hard liquor can also trigger headaches.
What to do
Carefully monitor your diet to pinpoint the exact foods that may cause your headaches. Even if a reaction may not show up for hours or even days, it is possible to recognize patterns in the occurrence of your headaches. If you believe certain foods are causing a headache, eliminate them and track the results. You can also monitor your headaches with a journal or diary.
Human emotions may be a trigger for tension headaches. Reactions such as anger and psychological states such as anxiety are commonly blamed.
A path to pain relief
Preventive measures are key to avoiding headaches. But if you do end up with a tension headache, most doctors recommend use of an over-the-counter pain reliever such as Advil, which contains ibuprofen. As with any medication, it's important to read the label before using it.
In addition to an over-the-counter pain reliever, relaxation techniques are a good way to remedy or prevent headache pain, since they are an outlet for emotional and physical tension. Techniques range from simple exercises such as deep breathing and brisk walking, to mind control disciplines such as meditation and biofeedback. Below are some tried and true methods.
Massage loosens the ‘kinks’ in muscles and ligaments. You can massage your own head, neck and shoulder area, though ideally it is most relaxing to have someone else massage you. Techniques include rubbing and kneading, and applying pressure to specific areas of the body.
This relaxation technique can be done anywhere. Take slow, deep breaths, inhaling from the diaphragm rather than from the chest. Breathe through your nose, gradually filling your lungs with oxygen. Exhale slowly and completely. Too much deep breathing can make you feel light-headed or lead to hyperventilation, so don't overdo it.
Meditation can provide physical and emotional benefits. Ideally, meditate for one or two 20-minute sessions each day in a quiet place. There are several ways to meditate and it's best to consult with a professional who can provide proper training techniques.
Physical activity can reduce stress and make tension headaches less painful and less frequent. Exercise regularly – try for a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes, three times a week. Stretch and work the muscles with an activity you enjoy - it can be anything from brisk walking to aerobic dancing or swimming.
This technique teaches you to be aware of, and to control, bodily reactions, including headache pain. During biofeedback, a special machine called an electromyograph (EMG) measures the tension level in certain muscles. Progressive relaxation exercises, in which you focus on the tension in certain parts of your body and then ‘release’ the tension in each part, are helpful in conjunction with biofeedback. Your physician can refer you to a biofeedback practitioner who can develop a specific program that meets your needs.
While the minor tension headache is the most common type of headache, there are other, more serious types, including migraine, cluster and sinus headaches, as well as headaches resulting from illness or injuries. Most headaches do not require medical attention, but there are situations when a physician should be consulted.
Contact a physician if your headaches:
- Occur every day or in a different pattern than usual
- Strike suddenly and severely
- Follow a blow to the head
- Grow progressively more painful
- Are initiated by physical exertion
- Are associated with or accompanied by fever, pain in the eyes or ears, swelling and soreness around the eyes and cheekbones, persistent nausea or vomiting, convulsions, loss of consciousness, mental confusion or a change in vision
- Are disabling in that they cause you to lose time from work or other activities