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Tension headaches and stress

Man with headache holding temples
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What is a tension headache?

Tension headaches, often referred to as stress or pressure headaches, are the most common type of headache. If you have a tension headache you may experience a constant ache on both sides of the head, like a band is tightening around your head.

They can also be accompanied by tightened neck muscles and pressure behind the eyes. These feelings are what we associate with an everyday headache that most of us experience from time to time or on a daily basis. Read on to find out what causes a tension headache and how to get rid of a stress headache.

Why do you get tension headaches?

Tension headaches are classed as primary, which means that there isn’t always a reason for them, and they are not caused by a medical issue or illness. Many people experience tension headaches, without knowing what exactly caused the headache to start.

There are certain circumstances that can trigger a headache; however these may differ from person to person. You may already know what triggers your headaches, especially if they follow a pattern or you have them regularly.

Tension headache triggers include:

  • Stress, this is why they are often called stress headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Tiredness
  • Dehydration
  • Noise
  • Bright sunlight
  • Certain scents and smells
  • Not eating regularly
  • Hunger
  • Straining your eyes by squinting
  • Looking at computer screens for too long
  • Incorrect posture, can cause tension to build in your muscles
  • Not being physically active

What foods can cause tension headaches?

Many people find that food and drink high in caffeine can trigger a tension headache. Finding out what triggers your headaches can help you to avoid certain foods or drinks like coffee and chocolate.

    What are the symptoms of a tension headache?

    Stress headaches can last from a few hours or several days; although the pain can be irritating and tiring it normally does not interrupt your sleep or daily activities, such as work. Tension headaches tend to start during the day or in the morning, and they commonly become worse throughout the day.

    Symptoms of tension headaches include:

    • A band of pain across the forehead
    • Pain or pressure felt on both sides of the head, possibly near the temples
    • Pain behind the eyes
    • Sensitivity to light or noise
    • Tension in the neck or shoulders

    Can tension headaches make you feel dizzy?

    Tension headaches don’t tend to make people feel dizzy. However if you have a headache and feel dizzy this could be because you are experiencing a different type of headache. Visit our headache and migraine page to find out more.

    How do you get rid of a tension headache?

    Tension headaches do not usually require medical treatment, and you do not need to see your doctor if you only get occasional headaches. However you should visit your GP if you experience headaches several times a week and your pain is so severe that you cannot carry out daily tasks. They’ll be able to offer advice as well as investigate what is causing your headaches.

    You can also use over the counter pain relief to ease the pain caused by tension headaches; these treatments include paracetamol or ibuprofen.

    Remember to always read the label and follow the enclosed patient leaflet, this will inform you about dosages and guidelines you should follow. It is not recommended that you take stronger pain medication such as co-codamol, unless a doctor has told you too, as it can cause drowsiness or in some cases headaches.

    Online Doctor VideoGP

    What helps tension headaches?

    Relaxation techniques can help to address the stress in your life that is leading you to stress headaches. Nowadays we are live very busy lives with work pressures, family demands and a whole host of other things.

    We can feel like we are being pulled at from all angles, it can be difficult to take the time to look after yourself and have a break. In fact we can also feel guilty for taking the time to relax and unwind, however it is so important that we do, even snatching five minutes to sit outside can help to boost our moods.

    Other relaxation tips include:

    • Yoga
    • Massage
    • Having a day where you screen your calls and emails
    • Exercise
    • Listening to your favourite music
    • Having a bath
    • Breathing deeply
    • Trying a new hobby such as knitting
    • Not looking at a TV or phone screen before you go to sleep

    How can I stop tension headaches?

    Discovering what exactly triggers your headaches can help you to have less or stop having them completely; lifestyle changes could perhaps cure your tension headaches. Writing a diary of your symptoms, the days and possible triggers can help you to map out exactly what you need to avoid and what simple lifestyle changes you can put in place.

    For example if your headaches are brought on by hunger then remembering to eat regularly could help, perhaps when you’re really busy set an alarm on your phone to remind you.

    Tension headaches are less common for people who look after their health, and well-being by:

    • Eating a balanced and healthy diet
    • Including regular exercise into their routines
    • Taking the time to manage their stress levels
    • Staying hydrated
    • Getting the right amount of sleep for them
    • Following good posture practices

    Even the smallest steps to becoming healthier will help to prevent tension headaches from happening, even if this is simply parking the car further away in the car park, making sure you eat breakfast or taking time out at the end of the day to relax.

    Why do I get tension headaches every day?

    Lifestyle factors can play a part in how often we experience headaches as certain aspects of our lives can trigger tension headaches. For example your headaches may occur when you’re dehydrated, hungry or tired. Finding out what exactly is triggering is your tension headaches, and taking action to avoid these will help you to manage your headaches and hopefully reduce them.