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Tension headaches: causes and cures

It makes me roar with laughter when either my husband, or brother, have a headache. I know men can be the butt of many jokes when it comes to their ailments, but let’s be honest: they don’t exactly help themselves and the ‘man flu’ stereotype that is cast upon them. I won’t say who (I’ll have a break from naming and shaming the poor men in my life this month!) but once upon a time, one of the above declared he had to see a doctor, because he obviously had a brain tumour, so severe was his headache. Needless to say he lived another day to tell the tale (and my sympathy was somewhat absent!). It makes me laugh due to my own experiences with headaches; they are daily occurrences in my life, and if I moaned every time I had one, I’d probably have no friends left!

Tension Headache

The most common type of headache is the tension headache (about 90% of all headaches). Typically, you may feel tightness in the neck in the occipital muscles, as well as a feeling of pressure behind the eyes or in the temples, and in some cases pain will be apparent in the shoulders and arms. Most people will have experienced this type of headache in their lifetime, and it is most common in, yep, you guessed it, women (we get lumbered with PMT, child birth and the menopause – of course it’s most common in women!). I unfortunately have chronic tension headaches (headaches that occur more than 15 times a month for at least 3 months in a row). I get them every day so am a high achiever in these stats!


One of the differences between tension headache and migraine is that with tension headache you can generally function as normal, unlike with migraine when you are (let’s be honest) a bit of a zombie. I need to hide in a dark room with no distractions until my migraine passes! It is characterised by nausea, vomiting, pain behind one eye, dizziness, light/noise/smell sensitivity, slurring of words, aura and a throbbing headache. Triggers include hunger, alcohol, menstruation, hormone imbalance, changes in weather pressure and stress. This common health condition affects roughly 15% of the population in the UK. Migraine can severely affect your quality of life, with some sufferers being in bed for days at a time with ‘cluster migraine’.

Sub-occipital pressure points

The sub-occipital muscles are located at the base of the skull and help hold the head into extension. When these muscles are tight, the trigger points refer pain from the back of the head toward the eye, and can leave you with a ‘head-band’ sensation, or a deep ache around the ears. This can be deceptive, as people don’t often associate their neck pain with headaches, as the pain may have travelled to others areas of the head.

Massaging into these muscles will increase blood flow; relieve tension and assist with muscle balance and alignment. I see this problem so often in massage – and often the client will not even be aware that their neck is tight! If you suffer from regular tension headaches it is advised to have frequent massage (1-2 times a month) to help prevent the muscles from becoming tight, instead of going for a massage when you’re in pain – meaning the muscles will be harder to relax and you may need more treatments in the long run.

Causes of tension headache

· Stress and anxiety

· Poor posture

· Muscular tension in the back and neck

· Tiredness

· Dehydration

· Skipping meals

· Allergies

· Poor diet

· Lack of physical activity

· Bright sunlight/squinting

· Loud noises

· Certain smells i.e. perfume, cleaning products, petroleum


Medical: Although you wouldn’t want to rely on painkillers long-term, there is no harm in using them from time to time; paracetamol or ibuprofen are the common go-to medicines for headache. However, a doctor once told me that having pain relief tablets on a regular basis actually gives you more of a headache – but I won’t even attempt to research that statement! In addition to this, painkillers are merely masking the problem – you should really be looking at getting to the bottom of the issue if you are a regular sufferer.

Acupuncture: This ancient Chinese medicine is credited with helping many physical and mental conditions. Fine needles are applied to specific points in energy lines (meridians) where inflammation and tension is then released – in this case you would be likely to have needles inserted into the back of the neck, head and thumbs. I had a course of treatments a couple of years ago, and although I’m terrified of needles, it really wasn’t that bad; plus it was made all the better as I noticed a huge difference in my neck tension and headaches. You can either have this treatment if recommended by physiotherapy, or you could alternatively visit Lynda at Bliss Therapy (Stornoway) as she has recently completed a course in acupuncture and knows her stuff!

Physiotherapy: We have an excellent physiotherapy department at the hospital, and although you may not initially associate physiotherapy with helping headache, you should have gathered by now that they are often caused by muscular tension – one of physiotherapies specialities! You will have a much better understanding of what muscles are tense, what may be causing it and exercises/techniques to help improve it. Self referral forms are available at hospital reception.

Exercise: It’s important for a number of reasons to be exercising regularly, and when it comes to tension headaches it should be a must! One of the most effective ways to circulate blood flow around the body is through vigorous exercise: that’s right, sweat! It was a big surprise to me when I began exercising regularly that my back and neck pain subsided significantly, and hey, if it works, I’ll do it. Aim for 3 sessions of this type of exercise per week.

Another brilliant exercise for back and neck pain is yoga. This stretches out the muscles, helps get rid of toxins and sends blood pumping through the body. It also helps to improve posture – one of the main causes of back pain. Our very own local yoga tutors Carly Yoga and Kirsty Anderson at Hebrides Dance Studio will have you walking an inch taller!

Hot and cold treatments: Although an increase in circulation can relieve muscle tension, it can also trigger headaches (I learned this the hard way in a yoga class when I came out of a shoulder stand and almost passed out!). If you identify with this, then cold treatments can help instead, such as a cold flannel on the forehead, or an icepack – this is the theory behind the ‘4head’ roll on menthol stick. A client also gave me a great tip – keep a small cushion in the freezer in a plastic bag, and use it to lie on at the onset of a headache. However, some find heat treatments a better relief (each to their own and all that jazz); microwavable neck heat bags are a must-have for your cupboard!

Magnesium: This supplement can be bought from most chemists and should be taken daily for it to be effective. It has many health benefits, which include aiding nerve, and muscle function, as well as aiding the body in absorbing calcium to encourage strong bones. It can also be found in foods such as almonds, whole grains, fish and green leafy vegetables. I began taking this supplement about 6 months ago and have noticed a difference in muscular tension in my back and neck – happy days!


Food: Headaches can be triggered by certain foods and drinks, such as caffeine; chocolate; diet drinks; processed foods; cheese and red wine, as well as alcohol in general. Skipping meals can also bring on a headache. You could pay a visit to the dietician for more advice on what foods could help or hinder you.

Teeth: Grinding your teeth at night - a.k.a “bruxism” - makes your jaw contract, causing a dull headache to occur. Using a mouth guard at night will stop this, and can be moulded to fit your mouth at the dentist.

Relaxation: It’s also important to try and relax regularly to prevent stress-induced headaches – have a hot bath, go for a walk, read a good book or go for a massage (see ‘sub-occipital pressure points’ above).

‘Headache Diary’: Keeping a diary of when you have headaches is also an idea – you may find that you have headaches after you do an activity or after you have eaten/drunk something in particular – I, for example, get headache if I eat a heavy meal at lunchtime, or if I have too much caffeine in the day. It may help you understand what is triggering your headaches, and make it that bit easier to treat and prevent.

Naturally, removing the cause of the headache is going to be the best treatment – but it is sometimes very hard to identify why our bodies are responding the way they are, and some, like me, are just more prone to headache than others. Sometimes we just have to stop for a minute, tune into our body, mind and life, and have a proper think: am I guilty of giving myself these headaches? Or is there something underlining that I need to deal with in order to get better? In today’s case, the answer is yes, it’s my own fault. I just drank three coffees in a row, and haven’t taken my eyes off a computer screen for three hours...

As Jeremy Kyle would say, I’m away to lie in a dark room!


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