Monday, 16 May 2016

Tension Headaches - How to manage your symptoms

tension headches
According to the World Health Organization, tension headaches are the most common form of a headache occurring in ¾ of the general population. Most people will experience this mild to moderate a headache throughout the entire head, sometimes described as “a band wrapping around the head” or feeling like a vice is squeezing the head. It feels like pressure or tightness, and typically doesn’t have light or sound sensitivity, nausea or vomiting associated with its presentation. Those who get tension headaches can suffer from them monthly, weekly or even daily. While tension headaches may not be as debilitating as migraines, they certainly are a nuisance and can cut into the productivity of your day.

Why do people suffer from chronic tension headaches? 

I have found 2 of the most important causes of tension headaches to be muscle tension and stress or mood disorders. Tension begins in the shoulder, upper back and neck area which extends into the head causing the sensation of pressure and tightness. Stress, anxiety and depression are rather common among those who suffer from tension-type headaches. They can often be the trigger to a headache and lead to a chronic presentation. 

What techniques can we use to reduce chronic tension headaches?

Fortunately, medication doesn’t have to be the only option in the treatment of tension headaches. Physical therapies like the application of heat with gentle stretching of the neck muscles, using acupuncture to help release tense muscles and upper back/neck massage are all very beneficial to the reduction of tension. Physical modalities can, therefore, reduce the intensity and severity of headaches.

Relaxation techniques are becoming more popular and efficient in the management of the chronic presentations of tension headaches. Studies are now showing that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs (MBSR) are significantly reducing pain severity and improving the quality of life in those participating in weekly sessions of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is a self-care technique to deal with stress and suffering or illness. The practice involves focusing on your body’s sensations, thoughts and emotions in a non-judgemental way. By increasing your awareness of your body and mind, you can explore your personal mind-body connection and participants are noticing a decrease in overall symptoms and pain. Knowing that the mind-body connection can be so intimately linked to headaches demonstrates that stress can be a dominant contributor to symptom presentation. By focusing on the root cause, medication can become less necessary over time.

I love incorporating mindfulness into my naturopathic practice. It helps people connect to their bodies, recognise pain and stress patterns and provides an immediate tool to use anytime, anywhere. Combining mindfulness with a physical modality like stretching, acupuncture or massage are useful options when trying to manage headaches while reducing the need to control them with medications.


1. Bakhshani, N.M., Amirani, A., Amirifard, H., Shahrakipoor, M. 2015. The effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction in perceived pain intensity and quality of life in patients with chronic headaches. Global J Health Sci. 2015. Aug 6:8(4):47326.
2. Omidi, A., Zargar, F. 2014. Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction in pain severity and mindful awareness in patients with a tension headache: a randomised controlled clinical trial. Nurs Midwifery Stud. Sep:3(3):e21136

About the author

Dr. Josée Boyer is a board certified bilingual Naturopathic Doctor with a general family practice. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree (Biomedical Sciences) from Laurentian University, in her native Sudbury, Ontario before pursuing her naturopathic medical training in Toronto.

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