What are the causes and symptoms of — and treatments for — these common headache types?
Tension headaches are by far the most common form of headache, though they can occasionally be mistaken for migraines, sinus headaches or other common headache types. A tension headache is generally a pain that comes on gradually and can last for anywhere from less than an hour to several days at a time. The pain usually involves the entire head, and some people report feeling like their head is in a vise, thanks to pressure in the forehead or temples. This may be accompanied by pain in the scalp and a decreased tolerance for pain all over the body.
Differentiating from migraines. The most common form of headache that may be confused with tension headaches is migraine. While tension headaches tend to be dull, throbbing pain with few other symptoms, migraines are generally characterized by a number of symptoms. A migraine usually involves photosensitivity with severe headache pain, and traditional headache medications usually don’t help. Migraines may also be accompanied by nausea, vomiting and abdominal pains — all not characteristics of tension headaches.
Causes of tension headaches. While the actual cause of tension headaches is unknown, the Mayo Clinic states, “The most common theories support interference or ‘mixed signals’ involving nerve pathways to the brain.” These headaches are popularly thought to be caused by stress, perhaps because of their name, which was given to these headaches when doctors thought abnormal muscle spasms or cramping caused them. However, it is possible that stress, depression and anxiety contribute to tension headaches and may even cause them in some cases.
Common treatments for tension headaches. For infrequent headaches (no more than one or two a month), the most common remedy is over-the-counter pain killers such as aspirin or acetaminophen, often coupled with a little bit of rest and relaxation. Alternating hot and cold packs applied directly to the forehead may also help relieve some of the headache pain, and a large glass of cool water may help. If headaches recur to the point of needing pharmaceutical intervention more than twice a week, consult your doctor for better pain management strategies, as well as diagnostic testing to ensure that the headaches don’t have a more serious underlying cause.