Are you tortured by headache pain morning, noon and night, day after day? Does emotional and/or physical stress always seem to trigger a headache? If so, you’re one of the many Americans who suffer from stress-related or tension headaches. These headaches have own distinctive style, and some of their underlying causes may actually surprise you. If you’re ready to tackle those underlying causes so you can relieve your headaches without turning to drugs, physical therapy might hold your answers. Contact one of our Virginia or North Carolina offices today — our physical therapist will be happy to help you feel better!
What Are Tension Headaches?
The emotional and physical stresses of modern everyday life seem to go hand-in-hand with headache pain. For some people, stress can even serve as a trigger for fearsome migraine attacks, which cause not only blinding headaches but other issues such as vision problems, vomiting, and faintness. But for the majority of us, the word “headache” refers to a tension headache.
Tension headaches are well named, but not always for the reasons you might suspect. They actually begin, not in the head, but in the muscles of the neck or shoulders. If these muscles become chronically tense and tight, they tend to go into spasm. This is bad news for the dura mater, a pain-sensitive membrane attached to certain small muscles near the base of the skull. The tight muscles pull on the dura mater, which causes it to refer pain signals up into the head.
Symptoms and Causes of Tension Headaches
Tension headaches can vary widely in severity, although they’re rarely as debilitating as migraines. They tend to a generalized ache over a broad region of the head, as opposed to attacking a specific area such as the eye (a trademark of another type of headache called a cluster headache). The tension that brings them on may stem from emotional stress (if that emotional stress creates chronic neck tightness), but it may also be caused by:
- Weak neck muscles that become fatigued easily
- “Text neck,” a strain disorder that occurs if you’re always drooping your head forward to look at your smartphone
- Repetitive motion or overuse from work or sports activities
- Secondary pain problems such as arthritis in the cervical spine
Tension headaches that bother you for more than 15 days out of the month for 3 months or more are considered a chronic pain condition.
How Physical Therapy Can Help With Tension Headaches
Over-the-counter pain relievers may reduce the symptoms of stress-related headaches for a few hours, but they do nothing about the stresses and strains that are making those headaches recur day after day. If you want a more lasting solution, physical therapy is a good place to start. Our physical therapist will administer an examination to see whether you’re dealing with tension headaches or with some other type of headache that requires a specialist’s attention. Physical therapy strategies for treating tension headaches include:
- Exercises to strengthen your neck muscles, allowing them to hold the weight of your head more evenly and with less strain
- Postural and ergonomic advice to help you get rid of any bad habits that might be causing “text neck”
- Flexibility exercises, manual therapy, heat therapy and/or ice therapy
- Stress reduction measures such as yoga, lifestyle changes, and advice on how to reduce common stress triggers in your life.