Tension-type headache – how to treat them

Tension-type headache
Tension-type headache

A tension-type headache is the most common type of headache and the one we think of as a normal, everyday headache. 

It may feel like a constant ache that affects both sides of the head. You may also feel the neck muscles tighten and a feeling of pressure behind the eyes.

A tension headache normally won’t be severe enough to prevent you doing everyday activities.

It usually lasts for 30 minutes to several hours, but can last for several days.

Who gets tension headaches?

Most people are likely to have experienced a tension headache at some point. They can develop at any age, but are more common in teenagers and adults. Women tend to suffer from them more commonly than men.

It’s estimated that about half the adults in the UK experience tension-type headaches once or twice a month, and about 1 in 3 get them up to 15 times a month.

About 2 or 3 in every 100 adults experience tension-type headaches more than 15 times a month for at least three months in a row. This is known as having chronic tension-type headaches.

When to seek medical help

There’s usually no need to see your GP if you only get occasional headaches. However, see your GP if you get headaches several times a week or your headaches are severe.

Your GP will ask questions about your headaches, family history, diet and lifestyle to help diagnose the type of headache you have.

You should seek immediate medical advice for headaches that:

  • come on suddenly and are unlike anything you’ve had before
  • are accompanied by a very stiff neck, fever, nausea, vomiting and confusion
  • follow an accident, especially if it involved a blow to your head
  • are accompanied by weakness, numbness, slurred speech or confusion

These symptoms suggest there could be a more serious problem, which may require further investigation and emergency treatment.

What causes tension headaches?

The exact cause of tension-type headaches isn’t clear, but certain things have been known to trigger them, including:

  • stress and anxiety
  • squinting
  • poor posture
  • tiredness
  • dehydration
  • missing meals
  • lack of physical activity
  • bright sunlight
  • noise
  • certain smells

Tension-type headaches are known as primary headaches, which means they’re not caused by an underlying condition. Other primary headaches include cluster headaches and migraines.

How are tension headaches treated?

Tension-type headaches aren’t life-threatening and are usually relieved by painkillers or lifestyle changes.

Lifestyle changes

Relaxation techniques can often help with stress-related headaches. This may include:

  • yoga
  • massage
  • exercise
  • applying a hot flannel to your forehead and neck

Read more about relaxation tips to help with stress.

Preventing tension headaches

If you experience frequent tension-type headaches, you may wish to keep a diary to try to identify what could be triggering them. It may then be possible to alter your diet or lifestyle to prevent them occurring as often.

Regular exercise and relaxation are also important measures to help reduce stress and tension that may be causing headaches. Maintaining good posture and ensuring you’re well rested and hydrated can also help.

Guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) states that a course of up to 10 sessions of acupuncture over a 5-8 week period may be beneficial in preventing chronic tension-type headaches.

In some cases, an antidepressant medication called amitriptyline may be prescribed to help prevent chronic tension-type headaches, although there’s limited evidence of its effectiveness. This medication doesn’t treat a headache instantly, but must be taken daily for several months until the headaches lessen.

Carly’s Café — Experience Autism through Carly’s Eyes

Carly’s Café — Experience Autism through Carly’s Eyes
Carly’s Café — Experience Autism through Carly’s Eyes

This experience is viewed through the eyes of Carly Fleischmann, a 17 year old girl living with non-verbal Autism.

Based on an excerpt from the book Carly’s Voice: Breaking through Autism, it explores how, for someone with autism, a simple act like going for a coffee can descend into chaos.

Carly’s Café was developed as an interactive video that allows the user to experience Autism from the inside-out, visit carlyscafe.com to enjoy the full experience.

Carly's Café — Experience Autism through Carly's Eyes from john st. on Vimeo.

TENS machines – what everyone suffering from a pain condition needs to know

TENS machines and pain management
TENS machines and pain management

Introduction

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a method of pain relief involving the use of a mild electrical current.

A TENS machine is a small, battery-operated device that has leads connected to sticky pads called electrodes.

You attach the pads directly to your skin. When the machine is switched on, small electrical impulses are delivered to the affected area of your body, which you feel as a tingling sensation.

The electrical impulses can reduce the pain signals going to the spinal cord and brain, which may help relieve pain and relax muscles. They may also stimulate the production of endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers.

What TENS is used for

TENS may be able to help reduce pain and muscle spasms caused by a wide range of conditions including:

It’s also sometimes used as a method of pain relief during labour.

Does TENS work?

There isn’t enough good-quality scientific evidence to say for sure whether TENS is a reliable method of pain relief. More research is needed and clinical trials for TENS are ongoing.

Healthcare professionals have reported that it seems to help some people, although how well it works depends on the individual and the condition being treated.

TENS isn’t a cure for pain and often only provides short-term relief while the TENS machine is being used.

However, the treatment is generally very safe and you may feel it’s worth trying instead of, or in addition to, the usual medical treatments.

Trying TENS

If you’re thinking about trying TENS, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP about a referral to a physiotherapist or pain clinic.

A physiotherapist or pain specialist may be able to loan you a TENS machine for a short period if they think it could help.

You can choose to buy your own TENS machine without getting medical advice, but it’s generally better to have a proper assessment first, so you can find out whether a TENS machine is appropriate for you and be taught how to use it properly.

To get the most benefit from TENS, it’s important that the settings are adjusted correctly for you and your individual condition.

If you find TENS effective, you can buy a TENS machine from a pharmacy. They range in price from about £10 to £200. More expensive machines aren’t necessarily any better than lower-priced ones, so it’s best to do some research before you buy.

How to use TENS

The information below is a general guide on how to use a TENS machine. You should always follow the manufacturer’s specific instructions.

TENS machines are small and lightweight, so you can use them while you’re working or on the move. You can put it in your pocket, clip it to your belt or hold it in your hand.

You can use TENS throughout the day for as long as you like, although it shouldn’t be used while you’re driving, operating machinery, or in the bath or shower.

Positioning the pads

Make sure the machine is switched off before you attach the pads to your skin. Position the pads either side of the painful area, at least 2.5cm (1 inch) apart.

Never place the pads over:

  • the front or sides of your neck
  • your temples
  • your mouth or eyes
  • your chest and upper back at the same time
  • irritated, infected or broken skin
  • varicose veins
  • numb areas

Turning it on and adjusting the strength

Turn on the TENS machine when the pads are attached in the correct places. You’ll feel a slight tingling sensation pass through your skin.

The machine has a dial that allows you to control the strength of the electrical impulses.

Start on a low setting and gradually increase it until the sensation feels strong but comfortable. If the tingling sensation starts to feel painful or uncomfortable, reduce it slightly.

Switch the TENS machine off after you’ve finished using it and remove the electrodes from your skin.

Are there any risks of side effects?

For most people, TENS is a safe treatment with no side effects.

Some people may be allergic to the pads and their skin may become red and irritated, but special pads for people with allergies are available.

TENS isn’t safe for everyone to use. Don’t use it without first seeking medical advice if:

  • you have a pacemaker or another type of electrical or metal implant in your body
  • you’re pregnant, or there’s a chance you might be pregnant – TENS may not be recommended early in pregnancy
  • you have epilepsy or a heart problem