What causes tension headaches? What is a tension headache? How do I treat a tension headache?

A tension headache is a pain along the scalp, neck or shoulders that is typically mild to moderate in intensity. It is sometimes referred to as a stress headache, and muscle tightness may be associated with it. There are a number of factors that may contribute to tension headaches, including poor posture, eye strain, fatigue, and over exertion. The following are a few tips to help you manage your tension headache pain.

Start by correcting your posture. Poor posture will add increased strain to the muscles in the head and neck, which will likely worsen your pain. For the same reason, you should minimize or take frequent rest breaks from tasks that involve forward, sustained head positioning (e.g. computer work, knitting, sewing, reading a book on your lap).

Gentle stretching of your neck muscles may be helpful as well. To stretch, tilt your ear to your shoulder or your chin to your armpit, and hold 10-20 seconds. Repeat stretches frequently to alleviate muscle tightness and/or soreness. If your headache pain is located at the base of your skull where the top of the neck meets the scalp, you may benefit from laying on your back and resting for 5 to 10 minutes with a tightly rolled hand towel placed beneath your head in that region. Taking a hot shower can help loosen tight muscles as well, while alternating heat and ice can help reduce tension headache pain.

In addition to tension headaches, several other types of headaches exist. If you experience a severe, sudden headache or have other abnormal symptoms, such as numbness, weakness, or visual disturbances, you should consult your physician or physical therapist promptly as it is unlikely you are experiencing a simple tension headache.

Kristin Collins, PT, DPT, COMT