Tension-type Headache – The Most Common Type of Headache

Tension-type headache is the most widespread headache disorder.  Recent international studies have shown the average prevalence as 36% for men and 42% for women  (cf migraine: 6% for men and 18% for women). This means that about 7 million Australians are likely to have tension-type headaches.  A recent WHO report states that ‘onset is often in teenage years and prevalence peaks in fourth decade then declines’ and  ‘60% of those with tension-type headache experience reductions in social activities and work capacity’.

Data from a study at a Sydney Clinic into age, onset and duration of tension-type headache showed that onset can be at any age: 15% of patients were under 10 and some were 50 years or over at onset.  40% of patients with tension-type headache had a close relative with some form of chronic headache.  Many people had a periodic upsurge of pain like a miniature migraine referred to as tension-vascular headache.  Around 10% had definite migraine in addition to their tension-type headaches.  About 50% of patients had a headache every day of their lives that may persist for 10-30 years or more.

Tension-type headaches are classified by the International Headache Society as chronic tension-type headaches when they occur for 15 days/month or more and episodic tension-type headaches when less than 15 days/month.

Read more about tension-type headaches at Virtual Medial Centre.

Symptoms

Symptoms may include

  • dull and persistent pain that may vary in intensity (mild to moderate) and is usually felt on both sides of the head or neck (some however experience jabs of sudden pain in the head)
  • a constant, tight, heavy or pressing sensation on or around the head
  • tautness and tenderness of scalp, neck and shoulder muscles
  • neck movements (active or passive) restricted by muscular stiffness and discomfort
  • ache in the back or over the left side of the chest
  • recurrent and episodic pain (often in association with stress) that can last for minutes, hours, days, months or even years
  • mild sensitivity to light and noise (may occur in severe attacks)
  • nausea and indigestion
  • trouble concentrating and difficulty sleeping
  • depression and anxiety (common).

Triggers

Tension-type headaches, despite the name, are not necessarily caused by tension or stress.  Triggers can includeexcessive muscle contraction such as frowning or jaw-clenching

  • poor posture at work, home and when driving
  • bright lights, prolonged reading, loud noise
  • medication overuse
  • stress, anxiety
  • fatigue, emotional upsets, depression.

Diagnosis

  • no specific test
  • determined by symptoms, medical history and physical examination by doctor
  • a CT scan or MRI may be needed if constant pain or unusual symptoms.

Treatment and prevention

Depending on symptoms and precipitating factors, treatment and prevention can include

  • taking time away from stress
  • having a balance of work and leisure, having fun and enough rest, sleep and regular exercise
  • achieving a state of mental and physical relaxation
  • psychological treatment to uncover anxieties or emotional pressures
  • physiological treatment such as relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, biofeedback, acupuncture, compress, heat pad, neck and shoulder massage
  • over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, paracetamol, ibuprofen, combination analgesics with codeine (caution- avoid taking OTC medication every day as this in itself could precipitate a Chronic Daily Headache)
  • prescription medicines such as antidepressants or stronger analgesics.

Call your doctor if your headache

  • is a thunderclap headache or a headache associated with a loss of consciousness
  • can not be relieved with medication or requires daily use of medication
  • occurs after a head injury
  • is associated with blurred vision, difficulty speaking or numbness of arms or legs
  • is accompanied by fever or vomiting.

References

Headache Disorders and Public Health, WHO 2000
Migraine and Other Headaches 2000  Professor James Lance
Wolff’s Headache and Other Head Pain 7th ed Silberstein, Lipton & Dalessio
Critical Decisions in Headache Management Giammarco, Edmeads, Dodick
Harvard Medical School Consumer Health Info, www.intelihealth.com