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Tension headache: causes, treatment

Tension headaches are the most common of the different types of headaches. You can find out here how the symptoms develop and what helps against them.
Tension headache: woman lying on the sofa

What are tension headaches?

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache - about a third of all Germans experience the mostly dull pressure pain at least once a month. Headaches often appear as a symptom of another disease, but tension headaches form their own underlying disease, for which there are various risk factors such as stress or incorrect stress.
The resulting pain is usually difficult to pinpoint but occurs on both sides. In addition to classic medication, tension headaches can often be treated, among other things, by using peppermint oil on the temples. Tension headaches are usually described as mild to moderate and tend to be episodic - however, the duration of these episodes can vary widely. In some patients, the headache subsides after a few hours, others suffer for several days. Noticeable: As with migraines, women are more likely to experience tension headaches than men.

When does one speak of a chronic tension headache?

There are different forms of the course of the disease, which are called depending on the severity of the tension headache:
  • Sporadic tension-type episodic headache: mild pain that occurs a maximum of once a month and twelve times a year. This type of tension headache does not usually need to be treated compulsorily.
  • Frequently occurring episodic tension headache: The symptoms appear two to 14 times a month.
  • Chronic tension headache: If the headache lasts for 15 days a month and for at least three months (a total of 180 days a year), one speaks of chronic tension headache.

Causes of tension headaches

The exact causes of tension headaches are not clear - but there are many risk factors that favor the development of the headache. In the past, it was assumed that the symptoms were caused by tension in the neck, neck, and shoulder area - hence the name tension headache. In the meantime, however, it is assumed that muscle hardening in these parts of the body actually favors the development of tension headaches, but other mechanisms also play a role. Risk factors include:
  • stress
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Inner unrest
  • Existing diabetes ( find out what it means to be diabetic here)
  • Bad posture
  • Overweight
  • Existing joint wear, e.g. B. by osteoarthritis
  • The wrong strain on the back muscles (e.g. due to frequent sitting)
If a family member already suffers from chronic tension headaches, the risk of becoming ill is increased by about three times.

Symptoms of tension headaches

It is important to differentiate tension headaches from migraines. However, the two types of headache are quite different:
  • Tension headaches are often bilateral, migraines tend to be one-sided
  • The pain associated with tension headaches is often mild to moderate and oppressive or pulling; with migraines, the pain is pulsating and strong to very strong
  • Tension headaches are often relieved by light exercise, which tends to increase migraines
  • With tension headaches there are hardly any or no further symptoms, migraines are almost always accompanied by symptoms such as sensitivity to light and noise, nausea and/or vomiting

Treatment: Which therapy helps with tension headaches?

If the headache only occurs occasionally, prescription medication, for example with the active ingredient acetylsalicylic acid, usually helps. However, these drugs can even lead to headaches if they are used too often - therefore, they should be used for a maximum of three consecutive days and a maximum of ten days per month. Alternatively, the following measures can alleviate acute pain:
  • Fresh air: A short walk in the fresh air actually often helps and lets the tension headache go away.
  • Peppermint oil: A study shows that peppermint oil for acute tension headaches significantly improves the symptoms compared to a placebo and can even keep up with the effects of medication. Simply massage a drop gently into the temples or the neck on the right and left.

Pain in the head? When to go to the doctor!

Attention: If you notice that you can only treat the symptoms with a higher dose of painkillers, you should go to the doctor promptly and seek advice.

Prevent tension headaches: how it works

Otherwise, it is important to reduce the known risk factors in order to prevent tension headaches as much as possible - then they do not have to be treated at all. For example, stress should be reduced as much as possible. Endurance sports help many patients to compensate for stressful everyday life, such as jogging or swimming. Tense muscles can be loosened up through targeted training and massage treatments.
Relaxation procedures such as autogenic training can also help. If you are prone to tension headaches, you should also make sure you always drink enough - it should be two to three liters a day.

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