Tension headaches are common to millions of people. While most cases are not debilitating (enough to incapacitate the sufferer), they still can impact one’s ability to perform and produce.
The cause of headache pain is difficult to pinpoint as there are currently no diagnostic tests that can provide a definitive answer. But there are definite, known triggers of headaches including certain food allergies, food additives, chemical fumes and noxious visual stimuli.
With careful investigation, one can trace the cause of his or her headaches and take steps to minimize their occurrence or eliminate them entirely.
Those who get tension headaches describe a sensation of a tight band wrapping around the head, constricting it. There is pressure around the temples and behind the eyes, or in the back of the head and neck but the pain can be anywhere in the head area.
The onset is usually slow, but is definitely noticeable once it starts. You’ll feel a gradual tightening of muscles (although it may not be the muscles, but a nerve or vascular sensation mimicking tight muscles) around the head especially forehead; and sometimes back of neck. When it is at its peak, you feel like closing your eyes and stopping what you’re doing. At this point, most people will take an aspirin or Ibuprofen.
Aspirin works by blocking an enzyme called COX (cyclo-oxygenase) that is used form a substance called prostaglandins, which amplify pain signals and help initiate inflammation. Reduce pain signals and reduce inflammation, and you can reduce the pain from headaches. But the problem with aspirin is that it can make your stomach prone to bleeding, as prostaglandins help protect the lining of stomach from stomach acid.
Ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammtory drug that doesn’t have the risk of stomach bleeding like aspirin does, but is known to cause damage to the kidneys in high doses or frequent use.
If you are prone to getting tension headaches i.e. get them regularly, then chances are you are doing something on a regular basis that is triggering them. Your goal is to identify these triggers and eliminate them.
Here are the steps:
- Take a food allergy test. You can get a home food allergy test kit to determine if you are allergic to a particular food. “Allergy” in this sense does not only refer to sinus-related symptoms like sneezing and a runny nose. It refers to an immune response to eating a certain type of food that may manifest as headaches, GI upset, fatigue, joint pain and a wide variety of other symptoms. Once you identify one or more foods that trigger a response, eliminate them immediately.
- Keep a daily log of your activities— places you go/things you do regularly during your week and potential headache triggers that may be in those environments. Things to look for: heavy machinery, office machinery, paints, chemical fumes, food, drinks, and high energy electronics. See if your headaches coincide with visiting any of these environments.
- If you work with a computer/laptop, try reducing the screen brightness. Try your best to unplug two hours minimum before bed time.
- Tension headaches can be caused by periods of continuous concentration. If you have a job that requires this, have you heard about the Pomodoro Technique? The Pomodoro Technique is an innovative time management system that basically advocates breaking up your activities into 2o minute chunks, separated by short rest periods. This enables your brain to recharge itself for more work. More info can be found here.
- If you tend to hyperventilate, or have a low respiratory rate, you may be building up higher than optimal levels of blood CO2. This causes blood vessels to constrict, which can trigger headaches. To solve this, practice Butkeyo breathing.
- Lastly, regular tension headaches may be caused by neck bones being out of place. The neck bones, or cervical vertebrae can easily shift out of place from accidents and poor postural habits, changing the biomechanics of your cervical spine (neck). This can cause the neck alignment to straighten or reverse, as opposed to having a nice arc for balancing. One or several vertebrae may be rotated or tilted to one side, causing muscle strain and abnormal pressure to the joint surfaces (see if you have a head tilt). An abnormally aligned neck can also irritate the spinal cord and/or spinal nerves that exit down to the arms and back muscles. All these factors can lead to tension headaches, among other things. Read my previous post on how to self-treat neck problems here.
If your neck feels out of place; i.e. you can’t turn or bend it fully and/or you feel neck tension, then consider getting checked by an experience chiropractor. Chiropractic adjustments can help restore movement and alignment to your neck and potentially reduce or eliminate your headaches, if the cause is due to abnormal neck alignment.