Tension Headaches and How to Tame Them

Posted by Alvin Barrow, M.D. on Apr 27, 2016, 9:30:00 AM

You know how it feels at the beginning. There’s a dull ache behind your eye, maybe, or on the sides of your head and it feels like pressure down the back of your neck. If you don’t get a handle on it fast, chances are it will get worse before it gets better. You’re having a tension headache, and they’re more common than you might think. 

A Tight Band Around the Forehead

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, so chances are you’re familiar with them. The pain can range from mild to severe and is often felt in the head, neck and behind the eyes. People with tension headaches might experience dull, aching head pain, tightness or pressure on the sides and back of their head and tenderness in their scalp, neck and shoulder muscles. Patients sometimes describe tension headaches as pain that feels like a tight band around their forehead. While most people who experience tension headaches only deal with them one or two times per month, they can be chronic, especially in women, who are twice as likely to suffer from tension headaches as men. Chronic episodes can last more than 15 days per month.

Avoid Headache Triggers

Though commonplace, not much is understood about what causes tension headaches. While not everyone experiences tension headaches for the same reason, there are some common triggers. These include: 

  •  Looking at a computer screen for long periods of time
  •  Driving for long periods
  •  Cold temperatures
  •  Dry eyes
  •  Eye strain
  •  Fatigue
  •  Smoking
  •  Alcohol
  •  Illness such as a sinus infection, cold or flu
  •  Caffeine
  •  Anxiety
  •  Emotional stress
  •  Bad posture

Treating tension headaches typically involves taking over-the-counter pain medications. Make sure you’re not overusing these because this can lead to “rebound” headaches, which happen when your body becomes so used to pain medication it triggers another headache when the medication wears off. Other effective treatments that don’t involve medication include: 

  •  Using a heating pad or ice pack on your head or neck several times a day
  •  Stress management
  •  Taking a hot bath or shower to relieve tense muscles
  •  Improving posture
  •  Taking frequent breaks from the computer screen or when driving to prevent eye strain



When to See Your Doctor

First, if you’re concerned at all about a headache or headache episodes, see your doctor. The general rule of thumb is that if you’re relying on medication more than twice a week for headaches or if they are disrupting your life, it’s time to see your physician. If you have a history of headaches but the pattern changes, make an appointment. If at any time you experience a headache that is abrupt and severe, accompanied by a fever, stiff neck, mental confusion, seizures, double vision, weakness, numbness or speaking difficulties or that worsens after a head injury, seek emergency medical assistance immediately. These could be signs of serious health risks.


Dr. Alvin Barrow is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Meyerland Plaza Clinic. The satisfaction he gets from helping patients is why he chose to be a doctor.



Topics: headache triggers, headache, headache treatments, tension headache

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