Tension Headaches. What Can You Do About It?

By Chan Yin Keen | Principal Chiropractor
One Spine Chiropractic, D27, 3rd Floor, Centre Point Sabah.


Headaches are a common malady that afflicts the general populace. Half of us will experience headaches in a given year, while a large number of us will have a lifelong history of headaches. There are several types of headaches out there, ranging from things like migraines, tension type headaches, sinus headaches, all the way to severely debilitating cluster headaches.

Some of these headaches can be caused by complex genetic factors and can be a bit more troublesome, like migraines which come with a slew of symptoms such as throbbing pain, nausea and photosensitivity. The vast majority of headaches out there though, are tension type headaches. Tension type headaches are headaches caused by stress or tension(!) that one experiences in their daily life. Typically, removing ourselves from external stressor stimuli should suffice in reducing that headache, but in some cases it remains or we cannot exactly tear ourselves away from our primary stressor stimuli (work or school for instance).

The reason such external stimuli causes headaches is because a lot of stress and tension gets built up in our muscles. The muscles on our scalp and neck tighten up from such stress and we start getting that feeling of pressure around the head. Neck and shoulder stiffness, feeling a bit tired are also features that can crop up with tension headaches.

The buildup of tension in our muscles is the main mechanism of how we get tension headaches, but the “why” we get tension in our muscles is not limited to just the feelings of tension and stress. Poor ergonomics or working posture can also cause muscular tightness which leads to headaches. Lack of sleep prevents the body from getting enough rest and allowing muscles to relax and unwind. Feelings of anxiety or emotional stress can translate to a lot of muscular tension as sits bundled inside. A poor diet unsurprisingly, can also be a cause for headaches and muscle tension.

So how does one resolve their tension headache woes?

As briefly mentioned before, removing ourselves from noxious stimuli should relieve that tension headache immediately. If you are mentally overexerted, or say you have been sitting too long in front of your laptop, getting some rest will help your headache. To note, headaches should not be something that keeps occurring to the point of being a chronic problem. Headaches are the way your body tells you that something is not right. So if you are finding yourself having tension headaches regularly, you might want to consider a mild lifestyle change with less stress or less sitting down in front of a laptop.

Something else to think about would be picking up some form of sport or exercise. Yoga has shown to be effective for pain relief in the low back, but the slow pace and calmness inherent in yoga and meditation can help ease tension and relieve stress too. It can be a bit daunting for some who have never joined a class or considered yoga before, in which case general exercise may be more your speed. Getting your heart rate up from exercise, whether it be a jog or weights at a gym, is known to improve mood and sleep which are factors in tension headaches.

If you spend a lot of time in front of a laptop or a computer, ergonomics of how you sit and view your screen can help ease tension in and around your neck, or at the very least, not make it worse. Keeping the top of your screen at or just below eye level and about an arm’s length away will help ease the strain in your eyes. At the same time it will also ensure you’re not tilting your head back to look at the screen and shorten your posterior neck muscles, causing uncomfortable tightness in the back of your head.

To note, the position of the keyboard matters too. Too far forward, you are leaning over your desk and basically hunching. Too high up and it’s incredibly uncomfortable to type. You want to be as comfortable as possible when working in front of a computer so generally you’d want your keyboard to be at the same height as your elbows, and near enough to you that your elbows form a 90 degree angle.

Also remember to take lots of breaks. Sitting in a similar position for extended periods of time, even if incredibly comfortable, can lead to muscle fatigue. Have a bit of a stretch, a walk and some water after an hour of sitting in front of your laptop.

Speaking anecdotally, what I typically find in patients who complain of tension type headaches is a lot of muscles around the neck area with a palpable tightness to it, that when stimulated (say, pressed on) can produce localised pain to the area as well as referred pain towards the head, reenacting the headache-like pain. These localised areas of tenderness are called trigger points and are small bands of tightly constricted muscle that have in a way, forgotten to turn off and relax. Having a qualified massage therapist, chiropractor, or physiotherapist work on your muscles will provide a definite sense of relief as they will likely knead the tension out of the muscles.

That said, the hot tip here for those who are keen to do some self remedying, self massage is a definite option. The muscles just under the back of the skull, known as the suboccipital muscles are prime spots that can get a fair bit tight and give you tension headaches.

Applying pressure over the area with your fingers, or gently lying down face up, with a tennis ball just under that muscle group can give you plenty of relief. Follow it up with some neck stretches just to loosen up the neck or even a bit of heat will help. Your temples also have a muscle that is prone to being a source of pain itself. You can tell it is there by putting your fingers on your temples, clenching your teeth, and feeling it pop out at you. Giving that a bit of a rub is something you may have seen other people do, and they do for a reason. It works!

The takeaway here is that tension headaches are easy to resolve when you know where your source of stress is coming from. If in doubt, visit a medical professional who can give you their advice on what is the best course of action for your headache.

For more information about this topic, you may get in touch with Chan Yin Keen from One Spine Chiropractic at 013-8100373 or visit them at Centre Point Sabah.

Leave a Reply