The dog won’t stop barking, your teenage son is explaining how the car acquired that new dent and you haven’t even put down your briefcase after a day spent hunched over your computer at the office. The next thing you know, a persistent, nagging pain grips your head like a giant rubber band and refuses to let go.
Tension-type headaches are often known as “tension” or “stress headaches.” And guess what? “Stress is the most common trigger for the tension-type headache,” says Robert S. Kunkel, MD, consultant in the Department of Neurology at the Cleveland Clinic and past president of the National Headache Foundation. Anxiety, depression, fatigue and unexpressed anger can also contribute, as can such physical triggers as poor posture, grinding your teeth, a lack of exercise or whiplash. These headaches, which affect about 80 percent of us at one point or another (particularly women), are actually the most common type of headache around.
While tension-type headaches were once blamed on muscle tension in the head and neck (hence the name), studies are showing this is not always the cause. In fact, imaging tests show that some people experience these headaches without any muscle tension or contraction at all. Newer research suggests the issue might be the effect of stress on certain brain chemicals. These substances then may turn on pain pathways and prevent the brain from suppressing pain, according to Dr. Kunkel.
Used sparingly, over-the-counter pain relievers are often the first line of defense against tension-type headaches, but “lifestyle changes can prevent many headaches from happening in the first place,” Dr. Kunkel says. “Regular exercise, getting a good night’s sleep, stress management strategies, good posture and other common-sense techniques really can make a difference.”