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Eye and Ear Problems

Tension Headaches

Prevention - Home Treatment - When to Call a Health Professional

More than 90 percent of headaches are tension headaches, which become more frequent and severe during times of emotional or physical stress. Tightness or pain in the muscles of the neck, back, and shoulders may accompany a tension headache. A previous neck injury or arthritis in the neck can also cause tension headaches.

A tension headache may cause pain all over your head, pressure, or a feeling like having a tight band around your head. Your head may feel like it is in a vise. Some people feel a dull, pressing, burning sensation above the eyes.

The pain may also affect the jaw, face, neck, and upper back. You can rarely pinpoint the centre or source of pain.


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  • Reduce emotional stress. Take time to relax before and after you do something that has caused a headache in the past. Try the progressive muscle relaxation or roll breathing exercises on See Roll Breathing See Progressive Muscle Relaxation.

  • Reduce physical stress. When sitting at a desk, change positions often, and stretch for 30 seconds each hour. Make a conscious effort to relax your jaw, neck, shoulder, and upper back muscles.

  • Evaluate your neck and shoulder posture at work and make adjustments if needed. See Prevention.

  • Exercise daily. It will help relieve tension.

  • Treat yourself to a massage. Some people find regular massages very helpful in relieving tension. See Massage Therapy.

  • Limit your caffeine intake to 1 to 2 cups per day. People who drink a lot of caffeinated beverages often develop a headache several hours after they have their last caffeinated beverage or may wake with a headache that is relieved by drinking caffeine. Cut down slowly to avoid caffeine-withdrawal headaches.

Home Treatment

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  • Stop whatever you are doing and sit quietly for a moment. Close your eyes and inhale and exhale slowly. Try to relax your head and neck muscles.

  • Take a stretch break or try a relaxation exercise. See Relaxation Skills.

  • Gently and firmly massage your neck muscles. See Neck Exercises You do not need to do every exercise. Stick with the ones that help you the most. Do each exercise slowly. Stop any exercise that increases pain. Start by doing the exercises twice a day.for neck exercises.

  • Apply heat to the painful area with a heating pad, hot water bottle, or a warm shower.

  • Lie down in a dark room with a cool cloth on your forehead.

  • Taking aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen often helps relieve a tension headache. However, using nonprescription or prescription headache medications too often may make headaches more frequent or severe.

When to Call a Health Professional

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  • If a headache is severe and cannot be relieved with Home Treatment.

  • If unexplained headaches continue to occur more than 3 times a week.

  • If headaches become more frequent and severe.

  • If headaches occur during or after physical exertion, sexual activity, coughing, or sneezing.

  • If headaches awaken you out of a sound sleep or are worse first thing in the morning.

  • If you need help discovering or eliminating the source of your tension headaches.

  • Also see "Headache Emergencies" on See Headache Emergencies.

    Tracking Your Headaches

    If you have recurring headaches, keep a record of your symptoms. This record will help your doctor if medical evaluation is needed. Write down:

  • The date and time each headache starts and stops.

  • Any factors that seem to trigger the headache: food, smoke, bright light, stress, activity.

  • The location and nature of the pain: throbbing, aching, stabbing, dull.

  • The severity of the pain.

  • Other physical symptoms: nausea, vomiting, visual disturbances, sensitivity to light or noise.

  • If you are a woman, note any association between headaches and your menstrual cycle or use of birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy.


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