young woman holding her head in painAccounting for about 50% of headaches, tension-type headaches are the most common type. You will sometimes hear these referred to as “muscle contraction headaches.” Although women are more likely than men to get these, pretty much everyone will have at least one tension headache at some point in their life.

The pain reported is usually mild-to-moderate in intensity, with a continual pressing/tightening feeling. Some people state that it feels like their head is being squeezed. Head tension is typically not accompanied by nausea and/or vomiting.

Have you talked to doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists about your tension headaches but haven’t gotten relief? One common but overlooked cause of tension headaches is temporomandibular joint dysfunction (called TMJ or TMD). The Warren, MI, TMJ dentists at the Michigan Head & Neck Institute can determine if this condition contributes to your headaches. 

Four Types of Tension Headaches

One way to classify tension headaches is by their frequency. Using this system, your tension headaches might be classified as:

  • Infrequent episodic tension-type headache – at least 10 headaches that occur less than 1 day per month. Quality of life typically is not affected by these headaches.
  • Frequent episodic tension-type headache – occurs at least once/month, but not more than 15 days per month, for at least 3 months. These last anywhere from 30 minutes up to 7 days.
  • Chronic tension-type headache – occurs at least 15 days per month for a minimum of 3 months. These persist for hours and can be continuous.

In addition, we might talk about probable tension-type headaches. These headaches have the same symptoms as tension-type headaches but haven’t been specifically diagnosed. They may be classified as probable frequent episodic, probable infrequent episodic, or probable chronic. (Probable chronic tension-type headaches can be related to medication overuse.)

Symptoms of Tension-Type Headaches

Symptoms of tension-type headaches include a tight feeling around the head, shoulder pain, neck pain, and sometimes even light or noise sensitivity.  The pain is typically steady, not throbbing or pulsing.

Tension-type headaches and migraines have similar characteristics, so people tend to think they have migraines when they actually don’t. You can distinguish migraine headaches by these characteristics:

  • Pulsating, throbbing pain
  • Often affect only one side of the head (tension-type typically affects both sides of the head)
  • Often accompanied by nausea/vomiting & sensitivity to light/sound

Head tension episodes are rarely disabling and do not usually require emergency treatment. Chronic headaches, however, can have a negative impact on your quality of life.  Many suffering from chronic tension-type headaches can develop depression and anxiety, as is common with other types of chronic pain.  Stress can trigger or aggravate these headaches as well. This can create a cycle of worsening headaches. 

As headaches become more frequent, treatment with pain relievers can lead to medication overuse headaches, further exacerbating the pain cycle. 

Tension-Type Headache Triggers

One thing that migraines and tension-type headaches have in common is the importance of triggers. Understanding your headache triggers can help you reduce the frequency and/or intensity of tension-type headaches. 

Here are some common triggers for head tension:

  • Physical activity or over-activity – athletics or other intense physical exertion (even sexual activity) can be a trigger. Alternatively, lack of activity can also be a cause.
  • Foods and Beverages – rapidly consuming very cold foods/beverages can also be a trigger. Remember that “brain freezes” brought on by ice cream are NOT tension headaches. Skipping meals can also be a source of these as well.
  • Fatigue – lack of sleep is a headache trigger.
  • Medications – many persistent headaches are the result of medication overuse. On the other hand, withdrawal from caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol can also trigger headaches.
  • Poor posture – sleeping in an uncomfortable position or working at a computer all day hunched over, straining your eyes is another common trigger.
  • Temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ/TMD) – jaw clenching or grinding (during the day or overnight) triggers headaches. Splint therapy to address the underlying TMJ disorder addresses the chronic headache issue.

Tension-type headaches can usually be treated and prevented.  It is more likely that patients who experience head tension ONLY will not have them for more than 1-2 years.  Patients who experience migraines, in addition to tension headaches, are up against much greater challenges.  Over-the-counter pain relievers like NSAIDs, ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve) are the most popular choices. Many patients also report that caffeine helps, as well as massage therapy.  More aggressive treatments include things like stress management therapy, drug treatment with antidepressants, and relaxation training.

The dentists at the Michigan Head & Neck Institute in Warren, MI, can help you find the best treatment or treatments for your tension headaches. 

Headache Relief in Warren, MI

If you are experiencing frequent or chronic headaches in Warren, MI, the TMJ dentists at the Michigan Head & Neck Institute may be able to help. TMJ is a commonly overlooked cause of tension headaches. It’s worth getting tested for TMJ if you aren’t getting good results from your current headache treatment or if you have other TMJ symptoms. 

For more information on tension-type headaches, or if you currently suffer from head tension, please contact our office at (586) 573-0438.