What causes tension headaches is not known, however the common assumption is that they are caused by muscle tension in the head and neck. Although muscle tension may be a related cause, there are many forms of tension headaches and recent thinking is that there is more than one cause for this type of headache.
One theory is a malfunctioning pain filter that is found in the brain stem may cause the pain. The thought is that the brain misinterprets information, from muscles, and interprets that signal as pain.
Serotonin is thought to be one of main molecules involved. This is evidenced by the fact that tension headaches can be successfully treated with some antidepressants. Teeth clenching is another theory as a cause for tension type headaches and migraine as it causes chronic contraction of the temporalis muscle.
Nonprescription painkillers such as aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen commonly relieve tension headaches. When severe muscle contraction occurs, stronger prescription drugs may be needed. However, there are side effects associated with these stronger drugs, namely drowsiness and slower reflexes. Therefore, most physicians will only recommend using strong medications for short periods of time and usually not for more than a few days.
Stress management can be very effective. Some people find exercises or meditation to be very relaxing. Biofeedback may improve relaxation exercises and can prove helpful for chronic tension headaches.
Other preventive measures you can try include keeping warm if your headache is associated with the cold. Try using a different pillow or changing your sleeping position. Adopt correct posture when reading, working or doing other activities that may cause headache. Exercise your neck and shoulder muscles when doing prolonged typing, computer work and when doing any close-up work. Getting enough sleep and massaging sore muscles can help reduce a headache occurring. Hot or cold showers or baths may relieve headaches too, so it's worth experimenting to see if either help you.
Over-the-counter medication such as aspirin, ibruprofen, or acetominophen may relieve pain if the above-mentioned preemptive measures are ineffective. Sometimes antidepressant medication may be advised for the relief of chronic headaches.
Keeping a diary of your headaches can help identify the source of chronic headaches. When you suffer with a headache write down the date and time the headache began. Also write down what you ate and how much sleep you got over the previous 24 hours. If you noticed any unusual symptoms or felt under stress, make a note of it too. Also, keep a record of how long the headache lasted and what made it stop. Having a headache diary available can act as a tracking device and you may find patterns that you should do more to avoid.
Some lifestyle changes may be necessary to reduce tension headaches. This may include getting enough rest and exercise and possibly a change in job or free time activities.
If you are suffering with headaches or migraines, you should first consult your primary care physician before taking other steps.