Headache at the back of your head, or across your forehead? Sense of tightness in your neck, jaw or temples? Sounds like the UK’s most common headache – the ‘tension headache’. If you’re one of the 96% of people who experience headaches, read on to find out how tension headaches differ from other types. Plus, we give our tips on how to relieve a tension headache.
Types of headache
There are hundreds of types of headache. In this article, we’re focusing on a particular type – the ‘tension headache’. If you’re looking for information on whether your headache is one to worry about, try reading this.
Headaches are either ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’. Secondary headaches happen as a result of something else. The underlying cause might be serious (a tumour, for instance) or it might be trivial (such as staring at a screen for too long). Primary headaches could also be called ‘unexplained’ – we don’t know what their cause is. The two most common type of primary headache are tension headaches and migraine.
How to tell the difference between tension headache and migraine
Typically, migraines are more severe than tension headaches, though this isn’t always the case. A bad tension headache can outdo a mild migraine, and some migraines have symptoms that don’t include pain!
Tension headaches more commonly occur across both sides, whether in the front or the back of the head. Migraines are more typically on one side only.
People often describe as being ‘throbbing’ in nature. Whereas tension headaches are a dull ache, often accompanied by stiffness in the neck.
Migraines sometimes have other symptoms. These may come before or during the headache itself. They include changes to your vision, such as flashing lights or tunnel vision, nausea, constipation, fatigue, and changes to taste and smell.
People with migraine are often sensitive to light, whereas people with a tension headache tend to be more sensitive to sound.
Of course, this list isn’t definitive! But it describes commonly found differences between the two headache types. You may recognise yourself in these descriptions. But remember, you can suffer from more than one type of headache.
Tips to relieve a tension headache
As we said earlier, a tension headache is a primary headache – that is, the cause isn’t clear. However, some things are commonly associated with tension headaches, so a link seems likely. Here are our top tips to help you relieve your tension headache.
Manage your stress
Stress can make everything feel worse, and headaches are no exception. Plus, if you’re dealing with a lot of stress, you’re likely to hold tension in your neck and shoulder muscles. Tension and knots in these muscles are thought to contribute to headaches. So stress can be a double-whammy when it comes to headaches!
Keep your everyday stress under control using a simple breathing technique. Other great ways to manage stress include exercising (especially outdoors and in nature), mindfulness, or simply setting aside some time for yourself.
Increase your fluid intake
It’s easy to let the day pass by without drinking water. But dehydration plays a part in the development of headaches. Keep a refillable water bottle with you wherever you go. Add ice, and fruit slices or cordial for flavour. Try to drink around 2 litres each day.
Muscles are designed to move and stretch. Holding still for too long will build up tension and fatigue in your muscles and restrict joint movement. Keep your neck, upper back and shoulders supple and mobile with our simple stretches.
A word on medication
Over-the-counter painkillers are the remedy of choice for many people with headaches. And they can be very effective. Try simple painkillers such as paracetamol, or combination medicines that may include caffeine, to relieve a headache.
However, it’s best to limit these medications to occasional use. Did you know that they can cause headaches? Medicines such as aspirin and paracetamol, if regularly taken more often than a couple of days a week, can trigger headaches.
Technically, these headaches are called ‘medication overuse headaches’ (MOH). They tend to occur daily, often early in the morning. They ease with medication, but quickly return as the effect wears off.
If you think you might be struggling with MOH, speak to your GP who will be able to help you reduce your medications safely.
Osteopathy to relieve tension headache
Our best tip, of course, is to see your osteopath! Osteopaths are trained in diagnosis. They use medical tests, such as blood pressure and neurological testing, which can help rule out some of the more worrying causes of headaches. They will always refer you to your GP if they have any concerns.
Research shows that osteopathic techniques aimed at the muscles, joints and ligaments can reduce the severity and frequency of cervicogenic headaches. Your osteopath will assess the function of your neck, upper back, and other areas of your body to ascertain how they might be affecting your headaches. They will then discuss their findings and recommendations for treatment with you. You may be offered soft tissue techniques to alleviate tension and trigger points, joint mobilisation or manipulation to improve mobility and function, and other techniques tailored to your situation. Your osteopath may also use medical acupuncture. This method is recommended by the NHS to relieve tension headaches.
Alongside a thorough health check and treatment for your headache, your osteopath can make suggestions to help you keep your headaches at bay. This might be tweaking your desk setup, or specific stretches to improve your mobility.
If you’re looking for a way to relieve tension headaches that’s not just short-term but that will give you long-term benefits too, book in with one of our expert osteopaths today!