Tension Headaches

Headaches are so common, it is hard to encounter anyone who has never experienced one. Almost everyone knows that throbbing, aching, intense feeling. Headaches can have many different causes, and it can be a symptom for other, more serious ailments. Yet, there is one cause of headaches that is quite common: stress. If you are a student or if you have a mainly sedentary job, you may be subject to tension headaches, also known as stress headaches. Tension headaches are described to be mild to moderate pain that occurs around the head, scalp, and neck. They are the most common headaches for adults, especially women. In fact. 80% of the U.S. adult population has suffered from tension headaches, and women are twice as likely to report it.

The main cause of tension headaches is tenseness of the neck and scalp muscles. Muscle contractions in these regions can be a result of stress, anxiety, depression, and head injury, among other things. Additionally, activities that require your head to be fixed for long durations of time can also be causes for tension headaches. That includes activities such as typing on a computer, working at a desk, or using fine instruments like microscopes. Sleeping with your neck in an awkward position or in a cold room can also be causes for tension headaches. Other triggers include colds like the flu, alcohol, caffeine, smoking, overexertion, eye strain, and dental problems. The pain usually lasts around 30 minutes, but can last up to 7 days. Although tension headaches does not nausea or vision problems like migraines do, they can cause lack of focus, irritability, and a sense of fatigue.

Unfortunately, there is no easy fix for tension headaches. However, small adjustments in your lifestyle can go a long way in improving tension headaches. One way to do this is to improve your work environment. Sitting is so common in our everyday lives, and in fact, 86% of Americans work sedentary jobs. Yet, it is known that sitting is not very good for the body. One way to ameliorate this is to set up an alarm every hour to remind you to get up and stretch. Using a lumbar booster on your chair would also help prevent headaches.

Working in a building all day can also cause what the EPA calls “sick building syndrome.” The air inside buildings can be dirtier than you think, and you may be exposed to a variety of unhealthy gases and chemicals, such as bacteria, mold, and air conditioning pollutants, especially in old buildings that have not been taken well care of. Photocopies and even laser printers can also be possible triggers for tension headaches. If filters are not replaced in a timely manner, ozone can leak, which is very dangerous and can be a cause of chest pain and irritation. They are also associated with a strong odor, which are additional causes for tension headaches. A healthy tip is to get fresh air, perhaps opening a window or taking a walk once in a while.

Working over ten hours a day or working overnight can also trigger tension headaches, as well as a variety of cardiovascular problems, including heart attack. Additionally, people waking up later in the day (the typical night-owls) would experience an increase in cortisol, a hormone related to stress. Stress is the first thing to avoid if you are a constant sufferer of headaches. It is thus important to not overwork, and to ask for a daytime shift as much as possible. Staring at a computer screen can also be a trigger for headaches, if done for excessive durations. Eye strain and over-illumination of computer screens can be a large factor for tension headaches. It can also alter your internal clock, causing fatigue, high blood pressure, and increased risk of carcinomas.

Another important tip is to improve your diet. Eating breakfast is important -- not only does it alleviate blood pressure and heart problems, but it also can prevent headaches. Breakfasts don’t have to be full five-course meals. They can be oatmeal, cereal, or smoothies. Fast foods and takeout may also be factors for tension headaches. Unhealthy foods like these often have high amounts of calories, nitrates, and tyramine, and studies show a high correlation between packing some extra weight and headaches.

Tension headaches affect many people, particularly adults with sedentary jobs. This makes sense, as our everyday lives have dramatically changed, as more and more people sit more and have other negative lifestyle changes. Though there is no easy fix, some behavioral adjustments can be made to ameliorate your condition. Still, changing your lifestyle is no easy task, but if there is enough motivation, major change can be accomplished, one step at a time.





Mary Yoshikawa