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Tension headaches - also called muscle contraction headaches - are the most common type of headache, according to the American Academy of Neurology. This is the type of headache with which many of us are familiar. The pain is usually mild-to-moderate and may also include feelings of tightness or pressure around the head and neck. We can develop a tension headache because of stress, fatigue, eyestrain or poor posture among other things. (Read about "Stress" "The Eye" "Back Tips")
Certain physical postures that tense head and neck muscles - such as holding one's chin down while reading - can lead to tension headaches. So can prolonged writing under poor light, or holding a phone between the shoulder and ear or even gum chewing. More serious problems that can cause muscle contraction headaches include degenerative arthritis of the neck and temporomandibular joint dysfunction. (Read about "Arthritis & Rheumatic Diseases" "Temporomandibular Disorder")
The National Headache Foundation (NHF) says there are two types of tension headaches:
Occasionally, tension headaches will be accompanied by nausea, vomiting and blurred vision, but there is no preheadache syndrome as with migraine headaches. (Read about "Migraine Headaches") According to the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NINDS), muscle contraction headaches have not been linked to hormones or foods, as migraine headaches have, nor is there a strong hereditary connection.
Treatment for muscle contraction headache varies. The first consideration is to treat any specific disorder or disease that may be causing the headache. For example, arthritis of the neck may be treated with anti-inflammatory medication and TMD may be helped by corrective devices for the mouth and jaw.
Small changes can help in some cases. Tension headaches can develop as a result of excess strain on those muscles; for example, looking down at work on your desk or computer for an extended period of time or sleeping or reclining on a pillow that's too high. In such cases, changing pillows and making a conscious effort to relax and periodically stretch the head and neck muscles while reading or working can be helpful.
Tension headaches can also develop in response to stress or anxiety. (Read about "Job Stress") In such cases, efforts to reduce stress through yoga (Read about yoga in "CAM Therapies") or other exercise can be helpful.
The American Academy of Family Physicians says you can try the following for tension headaches:
Acute tension headaches not associated with a disease are treated with analgesics like aspirin and acetaminophen. If you do need medication, be aware that such over-the-counter measures are for occasional use only. It's also important that, as with any medicine, you use and store these products correctly. (Read about "Your Medicine Cabinet") And also remember that if headaches are occurring often, you should call your doctor for advice. Stronger analgesics may need to be prescribed, however prolonged use of these drugs can lead to dependence and should be monitored carefully.
Although tension headaches are the most common type of headache, they're not the only kind. Migraine headaches cause intense throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head and are often accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light. Cluster headaches cause sudden, sharp, stabbing pain and may be accompanied by a runny nose or eyes. Both types of headaches should be treated under a doctor's care. (Read about "Migraine Headaches" "Cluster Headaches")
In addition, it's important to remember that some types of head pain can also indicate a serious medical condition. So call your doctor or seek medical help right away if you experience any sudden intense head pain, or head pain accompanied by other symptoms such as slurred speech, changes in vision, stiff neck, fever or numbness. They could be the sign of a stroke or other serious condition. (Read about "Stroke")
All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.
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