Treating the real cause of your Tension Headaches


The number one type of headache is tension which is caused by stress and/or tightness of muscles in the head and neck. They characteristically feel like a pressure or tightness usually on both sides of the head and are mild to moderate, not severe such as migraine headaches.

Particular advertisements provide slightly misleading information to promote their products. While they do acknowledge “Everything in the body is connected. That’s why when you feel the pain of a headache, the source of the pain maybe the muscles in your neck and head.” they then suggest taking their over the counter medication “Targets headaches at the source of the pain faster.”

Taking over the counter medication does nothing to change the tone of the muscles or help with realigning postural faults. Ibuprofen, the active ingredient in the commercial, works at reducing pain by blocking the production of prostaglandins. While prostaglandins do increase sensitivity to pain, they are found or made in nearly all tissues of the human body and have many other actions as well. They are a way for the body to deal with injury and cause inflammation which is needed to start the healing process. The actual source of pain is the damaged, strained or injured tissues, unless you have been taking over the counter pain medications to the point where you are getting medication over use headaches. With out abnormal strain on the tissues there would be no extra prostaglandins being produced and no increase in nociception or pain felt. You’re only working on curing a symptom, not fixing the real source of pain.

A common postural fault is forward head posture (FHP). When the head is aligned on top of the spine the bones support the weight of the head, once the head is forward of the centre of gravity the tension and strain increases on the muscles in the back of the neck to keep your head from falling forward. “FHP results in abnormal strain on muscles, ligaments, fascia and bones” Try holding a 4-5kg weight down by your side compared to holding it out in front of your body or shoulder, you will notice a difference in muscle activation immediately and muscular fatigue after only a couple minutes.

As the neck and head move forward the head extends on the spine so the eyes are facing forward instead of the ground. The muscles in the front of the neck and sub occipital area- under the skull, become functionally shortened since the bones come closer together while the muscles on the opposite side of the joint are held in a lengthened position. These changes will also directly affect the muscles acting on the jaw and its alignment, which could already be causing problems due to teeth clenching from stress.
Massage is known for being used to reduce tone in overly tight muscles. It is a great way to help promote relaxation both mentally and physically to the muscles, both of which are important. A qualified massage therapist will be able to evaluate posture and set up an ongoing treatment plan that includes massage, postural education, stretches and strengthening exercises. Within just a few treatments and adherence to home work/exercises, the headache duration, intensity or frequency should start to reduce. Making time for a massage should not be seen as a luxury or self indulgent, you can only pour out of a cup what you have in it.

Pain and inflammation aren’t always a bad thing, they are there to let us know something is wrong and to protect the injured structure from progressive destruction. Masking pain through medications and not addressing the tissue strains will lead to compounding harm to the tissues and chronic pain. Controlled inflammation is needed for healing, repetitive destruction of the newly healed tissues can cause excess scarring and thickening of the connective tissue or even death to the cells.

A headache journal can be an important tool to help see patterns, figure out what is causing your headaches and coming up with a plan to prevent them. Keep a record when you had your headache, what you ate before you had the headache, quality of sleep, what has been happening in your life, time of day you had it, where the pain was, what it was like, how long it lasted, and what you did for it if anything or any other points you may find useful.

American Journal of Pain Management, January 2008, 4:36-39

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