Kicking Tension Headaches to the Curb

TruMove—promoting healthier living through movement care and education in Overland Park KS, the greater Kansas City area, and beyond.

More than likely, you have experienced a headache at some point in your life.  No, we aren’t referring to those in-laws who drop in unannounced for an extended stay.  We’re talking about the real deal—head pain.  While causes and symptoms vary, one thing is certain: headaches are unwelcome visitors and we’d prefer to kick them to the curb sooner rather than later.  If the headache visit turns into an extended stay, the prolonged pain can take its toll on us physically, mentally and emotionally, limiting productivity and draining the joy out of otherwise enjoyable activities.  Don’t be resigned to suffer through your headaches.  There are treatment options and activities that can help and may even prevent future flare-ups.

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Diagnosing Your Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache among adults. The pain is typically mild to moderate and often described as a tight band of pressure felt around the head as if wearing a tight hat or having one’s hair pulled. Episodic tension headaches last from 30 minutes to a week and occur less than 15 days per month. Chronic tension headaches occur more than 15 days per month and continue for 3 months or more. In both cases, they can be accompanied by migraines, making it difficult to distinguish between the two. The symptoms associated with migraines such as visual disturbances, nausea and vomiting are not typically present with tension headaches.

Your risk for tension headaches increases with repetitive activities, poor posture and fatigue as overworked stabilizer muscles in the neck and upper back are triggered, particularly the suboccipitals. Thus, while it may come as a surprise to some, physical therapy can actually significantly reduce tension headache pain and the likelihood of recurrences. If you are not sure if physical therapy is right for you, come to our Overland Park, KS clinic for a free 15-minute consultation to discuss your condition. If your symptoms are not consistent with that of a tension headache and you may be suffering from a migraine, sinus headache or cluster headache, your PT will refer you to another health care professional for appropriate care. If ever you have a sudden severe headache accompanied by a fever, stiff neck, confusion, seizures, double vision, weakness, numbness or speech difficulties, please seek emergency care.

Causes of Tension Headaches

Despite extensive research, the exact cause of tension headaches remains unknown. However, there are contributing factors that commonly spur the onset of tension headaches. Stress is the most commonly reported trigger. Repetitive activities, even those that require minimal movement, also seem to increase the likelihood of tension headaches. Such activities include working on a computer, sitting in one position for a long time, prolonged concentration, and craning the neck. Tension headaches may also result from neck or jaw problems, poor posture and fatigue.

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Symptoms of Tension Headaches

Pain from tension headaches typically begins in the back of the head, spreading to the top of the head, into the forehead, and just above the eyes. Some people report an increase in facial pain particularly near the jaw. Often the headaches will get worse when holding positions that put a strain on the neck (e.g. typing on a computer). Since fatigue is a contributing factor, tension headache pain may increase if you are overtired.

Tension Headaches Treatment & Prevention

OK, so we’ve pinpointed some of the reasons our uninvited guest, the tension headache, might show up and we’ve discussed some things that might signal its arrival. Now what? How do we kick that tension headache to the curb and hopefully prevent it from paying us another visit anytime soon?

Our TruMove physical therapists bring relief to tension headache sufferers using a variety of trigger point “release” techniques including dry needling. We also offer massage therapy which effectively relieves tension on the tight, tender muscles in the back of your head, neck and shoulders and reduces stress. Your physical therapist will show you ways to improve your neck mobility and strengthen your stabilizer muscles in the neck and upper back to alleviate pain and hopefully lessen tension headache recurrences.

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There are lifestyle modifications you can make to reduce pain and the likelihood of tension headaches as well. Focus on maintaining proper posture throughout your daily activities. If you are sitting, use an appropriate chair with your upper legs parallel to the floor. Whether you are sitting or at a standing desk, keep your shoulders back with a 90 degree bend at the elbows. Your screen should be at eye-level to avoid added strain on your neck. If you find yourself talking on the phone often, consider using a headset. We encourage you to take a proactive approach in time management, too, building time into your schedule to relax so that your stress levels don’t escalate. Implement deep breathing techniques to cope if you are feeling stressed and do your best to get a good night’s sleep to fight fatigue. These simple modifications can have a huge impact in reducing tension headaches, allowing you to feel better and live happier.

If you have any questions about your tension headache symptoms, available treatments, or how to prevent future injury, please reach out to us or visit our clinic in Overland Park, KS. We have been serving the Kansas City area for over a decade and continue to expand our outreach, always striving for Better Health Through Motion!

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