Tension headaches

Posted on 16 May 2013

Do you know what causes a tension headache and who gets them? Dr Peter Haug, a neurologist at Mediclinic Milnerton in Cape Town, explains.

What is it and how does it feel?
Muscle-tension headaches can be one-sided or bilateral, and pain can be sudden and shooting, or constant and unrelenting. It can be a sharp pain, or feel like a heavy pressure that radiates from the back of your neck to the top of your head, or around the temples. Pain can also be above or behind one or both eyes, but it’s also often described as feeling like a tight band of pain around the head. Chronic muscle-tension headaches are often accompanied by extreme sensitivity to light, dizziness, difficulty focusing, imbalance, difficulty concentrating, and pain between the shoulder blade and spine, or neck, shoulder and arm pain.

Who gets it?
People with poor posture and those with muscle imbalance brought on by a sedentary lifestyle or poor sitting habits. Those who suffer from migraine headaches, or feel depressed, anxious or over-tired are also more likely to get these headaches. Highly-strung people who experience difficulty in sleeping tend to have worse headache symptoms.

What triggers it?
Muscle pain and/or spasm in the head, neck and shoulders. Pain in these areas can be accompanied by visible symptoms, like high shoulders, round back, squinty eyebrows and a chin that juts forward.

What treatment is available?
Muscle-tension headaches often don’t respond well to painkillers. When pain strikes, become aware of and correct your posture. Sit properly and stretch to ease muscle tension, then attempt breathing exercises to suppress your anxiety response to stress. A neck-and-shoulder massage may also help. The chronic intake of painkillers frequently worsens headaches, as it results in an analgesic-overuse headache.

When should I seek medical attention?
If you suffer from a long history of frequent or daily headaches, you have a low risk of brain abnormality but may benefit from counselling, especially if you’re regularly taking painkillers. People with the sudden onset of a new and severe headache (also called a thunderclap headache) and patients with persisting weakness or double vision, particularly when elderly, need urgent medical attention.

Would you like to know more about migraines? Read our post here.

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Published in Expert Articles

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