What is it?There are two main kinds of headaches — tension headaches and migraines. Many people mistakenly think that “migraine” is just a word for a very bad headache, and it is not uncommon for people to almost brag about the severity of tension headaches by calling them “migraines.” But a migraine is definitely a different kind of problem than an ordinary headache.
If you can walk around talking about the fact that you have a migraine, you probably don’t. Although migraines can be tolerable in their early stages, and some migraines are not completely debilitating, as a general rule migraines are much more serious than the worst tension headaches. Most migraines will have their victims flat on their backs in a darkened room. The (typical) symptoms of migraines are: disabling and pulsing pain on one-side of the head, light-sensitivity, and other symptoms elsewhere in the body (like nausea). If that doesn’t describe you, it’s pretty unlikely that you have a migraine.
All of that said, an “ordinary” tension headache can be pretty nasty. It can also have some elements of a migraine, and I there are probably hybrid varieties, headaches that have characteristics of both migraine and tension headache. What’s happening in a classic tension headache, however, is really much simpler than the physiology of migraine. In a tension headache, you have some neck and jaw muscles that are painfully tight, and full of “trigger points” (knots) that are radiating pain all over your head, and sometimes down into your neck, shoulders and even arms as well.
What’s the worst case scenario?The worst case scenario in the vast majority of cases is simply the annoyance of chronic headaches.
However, you should know that headaches can be the first symptom of some serious conditions. You should be concerned about any headache that came out of nowhere, with no obvious cause, and won’t go away, or a headache that keeps coming back worse than before. In that case, make an appointment with your doctor.
What can I do?Fortunately, there is a lot that you can do yourself to get relief from tension headaches.
They are called “tension” headaches for a reason! Stress relief and relaxation is often the magic bullet with chronic headaches. Most tension headaches can be traced to mental and emotional overexertion and exhaustion, or sitting too long in front of a computer (or both). Obviously, rest helps a headache. But consider the less obvious: headaches should not happen regularly, and you should consider them an important communication from your body if they are. A returning headache is probably your body saying to you, “Whatever you are doing, knock it off.” Consider changing your lifestyle: less stress, less computer, whatever it takes. Chronic headaches aren’t just annoying — they are proof that you are doing something your body really does not appreciate.
Heat or cool the head and neck
Heating or cooling can really help with tension headaches, but you have to be careful which one you choose. Ordinarily, spasmed or chronically tight muscles need heat — but in the case of headaches, heat can sometimes contribute to a very uncomfortable flushed or congested feeling that just makes it worse. Use your instincts. What will work in the case of a headache is whatever feels soothing. If cool washcloths feel soothing, use them. If steaming washcloths do, use them instead. It may vary from one time to the next. Sometimes alternating back and forth feels great. Experiment with temperature and location. Don’t forget to include your neck, face and jaw muscles, which are a very important part of the tension equation with all headaches. For lots of ideas about hydrotherapy, see Hydrotherapy.
Most commonly, it is the muscles of the neck and shoulders and jaw that directly cause headache pain. To stimulate them back to health, move them rhythmically: gently stretch your jaw open several times in a row, roll your head around in a circle. See Mobilize! for more information.
Bioenergetic breathing exercises
Headaches are often a product of complex mixtures of biomechanical as well as psychological factors, and so breathing exercises tend to be very effective in treating headaches. To pursue this treatment option, you should definitely read The Art of Bioenergetic Breathing first. Note that breathing for headaches can be as challenging as it is rewarding: they are likely to feel worse before they get better, but that is part of the process.
Postural dysfunction is commonly implicated in tension headaches, particularly the common “head forward” posture. Correcting posture is a difficult and uncertain business, however — please see Posture Exercises for Posture Correction for a variety of suggestions on how to proceed.
Invest in a telephone headset
If you spend more than fifteen minutes per day on the phone, and you get tension headaches, you need to buy a headset for your telephone. You may already have a phone that you can plug a headset into, or you may need to buy a new phone that will accept a headset. In either case, purchase a headset separately from Radio Shack — they sell sturdy, good quality headsets that will last much longer than the ones usually available from telephone retailers.
Improve your computer work station ergonomics
Computer work stations, even when they are properly set up, can cause headaches (in more ways than one). If you work with a computer for more than an hour per day, you should take care to ensure that it is properly set up. The factor most relevant to headaches is monitor position: it should be at least two feet away from you, and the top of the screen should be at or slightly below eye level. See my article about ergonomics, Unconventional Ergonomics, and IBM’s guide to computer work station ergonomics,Healthy Computing, for more information.
Upgrade your eyewear
It’s amazing how easy it is to forget that it may be time to upgrade your eyeglasses prescription. Don’t feel silly! This can sneak up on anyone! A related problem, and becoming increasingly common as aging people adopt computer usage, is with bifocals and trifocals: reading a computer screen with bifocals or trifocals usually demands tilting the head back to look at the screen through the narrow, bottom pane of the glasses. This causes a chronic contraction of the suboccipital muscles at the back of the skull — major culprits in the world of headaches. If you have bifocals and trifocals and you are using a computer for more than an hour per day, you should definitely invest in a pair of glasss for the computer screen only.
Massage and self-massage
Savings the most obvious for last: massage of practically any part of the head, face or neck will usually help with tension headaches, in many cases relieving the problem completely. The best bang for your buck, however, is usually in the suboccipital region under the back of the skull.
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