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Understanding Headaches: Part 2 - Tension Type Headaches

You’ve heard the term. You’ve said the term. ”It’s just a tension headache.”

But what IS a tension headache?!

The tension is used to refer to the painful sensation experienced across the forehead and temple region, whereby one typically experiences a tightening around their head. It is often described as if a belt were tied around the head, and progressively tightened throughout the day. These headaches can last anyway from minutes to several days and range from mild to moderate in intensity. Some people will only get one or two tension headaches per year; others will experience this headache daily, for months on end..

Tension headaches are at least twice as common in women. And since these headaches can interrupt our daily life to a large degree, they are often one of the main reasons for visiting a family physician or a chiropractor.

So what causes a tension type headache? As it happens, the specific cause of a tension headache is difficult to determine, however increased stress, sleep deprivation, or interruptions in hydration or food intake can be risk factors. This means that while these factors are not the specific cause of the headache, they increase your risk of experiencing them. The truth is that tension type headaches are labelled as a primary headache, meaning that they have no identifiable underlying cause.

Now the important part. ”I have one….how do I fix it.”

Once you have been diagnosed by a healthcare practitioner with a tension type headache, they will review treatment options with you. While a family physician may recommend over the counter pain relievers, or even prescription medication to help ease the pain and reduct the frequency of headaches, other treatments are also available.

Recent Chiropractic Practice Guidelines summarized the best-evidence approach to to treating headache disorders. For tension type headaches, low load craniocervical mobilization was recommended as a first line treatment choice. This mainly references working through a specific rehabilitation program aimed at reducing muscular stress through the neck and the muscles of the jaw and head. By reducing muscular tension, one will reduce the likelihood of experiencing a headache. Your chiropractor may have several other recommendations following your assessment that are specific to your needs. This may entail addressing postural changes, dietary and exercise habits, or addressing other functional deficits that where identified (such as decreased shoulder range of motion, or reducing upper back tension) through manual therapy. Acupuncture has also been identified through research to decrease intensity and frequency of tension headaches.

The key to this treatment plan is to be working with a practitioner; to work as a team. Proper follow-up will ensure that you are responding to the treatment, that necessary changes (specific to your needs) in the treatment plan can be made, or even referrals for additional testing can be made if needed. By working with your practitioner you help to ensure the best outcome.

Tension type headache is only one of several common headache disorders. Stay tuned for information on another common headache type…..The Infamous Migraine!


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