There are two main kinds of headaches — tension headaches and migraines. Many people mistakenly think that “migraine” is just a word for a very bad headache, and it is not uncommon for people to dramatically boast about the severity of tension headaches by calling them “migraines.” But a migraine is definitely a different kind of animal than an ordinary headache.
If you can walk around talking about the fact that you have a migraine, you probably don’t have a migraine. Although migraines can be tolerable in their early stages, and some migraines are not completely debilitating, as a general rule migraines are much more serious than the worst tension headaches. Most migraines will have their victims flat on their backs in a darkened room. The (typical) symptoms of migraines are: disabling and pulsing pain on one-side of the head, light-sensitivity, and other symptoms elsewhere in the body (like nausea). If that doesn’t describe you, it’s pretty unlikely that you have a migraine.
An “ordinary” tension headache can be pretty nasty. It can also have some elements of a migraine, and I there are probably hybrid varieties, headaches that have characteristics of both migraine and tension headache. What’s happening in a classic tension headache, however, is really much simpler than the physiology of migraine. In a tension headache, you have some neck and jaw muscles that are painfully tight, and full of “trigger points” (knots) that are radiating pain all over your head, and sometimes down into your neck, shoulders and even arms as well.
The worst case scenario in most cases is “just” the annoyance of chronic headaches. There’s nothing “just” about that, really, but they aren’t lethal. Tension headaches can be amazingly severe, but even the worst ones aren’t dangerous (nothing’s going to pop, no matter how much it feels like it). This also applies to migraines, even though they can severe enough to stop normal life.
The trick is recognizing when a headache isn’t just a tension or migraine headache. Some kinds of headaches are the tip of a pathological iceberg, an early symptom of some serious conditions. Consider the chilling but entertaining story of scientist Yvette d’Entremont:
I got the worst headache of my life and it didn’t go away. This horrible ache took residency behind my left eye and refused an eviction notice. I consulted endless doctors and it took eight months to find the first doctor who would start getting my headaches under control…
After a multi-year diagnostic journey, the headaches turned out to be caused by a combination of two fairly rare medical problems.
So headaches with unusual characteristics should be taken seriously. You should be concerned about any headache that came out of nowhere, with no obvious cause, and won’t go away, or a headache that keeps coming back worse than before. In that case, make an appointment with your doctor.
After concussions, people often suffer from headaches, a signature feature of post-concussion syndrome, “a complex disorder in which various symptoms — such as headaches and dizziness — last for weeks and sometimes months after the injury that caused the concussion” (Mayo Clinic). Post-concussion headaches cannot be directly treated by any means: they are “brain aches,” related to the trauma to the brain. Obviously this is not a tension headache. Treatment like massage might still be helpful, but only for temporary relief.
However, there might be much more involved of other tissues in many cases. The headaches may also be caused by both trauma and/or tension in the musculature of the head neck and face, for instance. To the extent that this is the case, the kinds of treatments below are much more likely to help.
Fortunately, there is a lot that you can do yourself to get relief from tension headaches.
Relaxation — They are called “tension” headaches for a reason! Stress relief and relaxation is often the magic bullet with chronic headaches. Most tension headaches can be traced to mental and emotional overexertion and exhaustion, or sitting too long in front of a computer (or both). Obviously, rest helps a headache. But consider the less obvious: headaches should not happen regularly, and you should consider them an important communication from your body if they are. A returning headache could be your body saying to you, “Whatever you are doing, knock it off.” Consider changing your lifestyle: less stress, less computer, whatever it takes. Chronic headaches aren’t just annoying — they are proof that you are doing something your body really does not appreciate.
Heat or cool the head and neck — Heating or cooling can really help with tension headaches, but you have to be careful which one you choose. Ordinarily, spasmed or chronically tight muscles need heat — but in the case of headaches, heat can sometimes contribute to a very uncomfortable flushed or congested feeling that just makes it worse. Use your instincts. What will work in the case of a headache is whatever feels soothing. If cool washcloths feel soothing, use that. If steaming washcloths sound better to you, use those instead. It may vary from one time to the next. Sometimes alternating back and forth feels great. Experiment with temperature and location. Don’t forget to include your neck, face and jaw muscles, which are a very important part of the tension equation with all headaches. For lots of ideas about hydrotherapy, see Hydrotherapy. For more about choosing between hot and cold, see The Great Ice vs. Heat Confusion Debacle.
Mobilizing — Most commonly, it is the muscles of the neck and shoulders and jaw that directly cause headache pain. To stimulate them back to health, move them rhythmically: gently stretch your jaw open several times in a row, roll your head around in a circle. See Mobilize! for more information.
Bioenergetic breathing exercises — Headaches are often involve psychological factors, and so vigorous breathing exercises — an easy way of blowing off steam and shifting mental state — tend to be helpful for headaches. To pursue this treatment option, you should read The Art of Bioenergetic Breathing first. Note that breathing for headaches can be as challenging as it is rewarding: they are likely to feel worse before they get better, but that is part of the process.
Postural exercise — Postural dysfunction is commonly implicated in tension headaches, particularly the common “head forward” posture. Whether this is actually a problem or not is unclear, and even if it is correcting posture is a difficult and uncertain business, however — please see Does Posture Correction Matter? for a variety of suggestions on how to proceed. But beware of the possibility of wasting time with this option.
Invest in a telephone headset — If you spend more than fifteen minutes per day on the phone, and you get tension headaches, you need to buy a headset for your telephone. You may already have a phone that you can plug a headset into, or you may need to buy a new phone that will accept a headset. In either case, purchase a headset separately from Radio Shack — they sell sturdy, good quality headsets that will last much longer than the ones usually available from telephone retailers.
Improve your computer work station ergonomics — Computer work stations, even when they are properly set up, can cause headaches (in more ways than one). If you work with a computer for more than an hour per day, you should take care to ensure that it is properly set up. The factor most relevant to headaches is monitor position: it should be at least two feet away from you, and the top of the screen should be at or slightly below eye level. See my article about ergonomics, Unconventional Ergonomics, and IBM’s guide to computer work station ergonomics, Healthy Computing, for more information.
Upgrade your eyewear — It’s amazing how easy it is to forget that it may be time to upgrade your eyeglasses prescription. Don’t feel silly! This can sneak up on anyone! A related problem, and becoming increasingly common as aging people adopt computer usage, is with bifocals and trifocals: reading a computer screen with bifocals or trifocals usually demands tilting the head back to look at the screen through the narrow, bottom pane of the glasses. This causes a chronic contraction of the suboccipital muscles at the back of the skull — major culprits in the world of headaches. If you have bifocals and trifocals and you are using a computer for more than an hour per day, you should definitely invest in a pair of glasss for the computer screen only.
Massage and self-massage — Savings the most obvious for last: massage of practically any part of the head, face or neck will usually help with tension headaches, in many cases relieving the problem completely. The best bang for your buck, however, is usually in the suboccipital region under the back of the skull. For details, see Massage Therapy for Tension Headaches.
One day I developed an extraordinary headache. It was one of those can’t-wake-up days. Coffee didn’t put a dent in the mental fog. The pain started late morning. Given my biases, it seemed like it began with a trigger point: stiffness and pain sneaking up the right side of my neck muscles, and then spreading out over the back of my skull, a sickly pain, like a zombie hand.
I massaged and soaked to no avail. It got worse. It progressed so steadily that I was queezy with the pain by midafternoon.
By the evening, it was migraine-esque. It was not a migraine — it lacked the paralyzing intensity of a migraine — but it was certainly the worst tension headache I’d ever experienced. I shuffled through a visit with a friend. I excused myself at 9:30 and collapsed in bed, whimpering and defeated. I feel into a fitful sleep that helped a little.
But the headache came back steadily in the morning. A couple hours in the day it was starting to get fierce again already. It was incredibly intimidating. It was horrible to think of another whole day like that.
And then an explanation for my suffering popped into my head, fully formed, a kind of eureka moment.
Did I accidentally buy decaf coffee? Did I? Because … if I did … that would … oh my …
I don’t know what tipped me off, but I practically sprinted to the kitchen to confirm it: I had bought the wrong coffee, and I had been drinking decaf for a day and a half. I had misread the packaging.
I’m a caffeine addict. I normally drink about 32oz of strong coffee every single day, and have for years. And I had just quit caffeine cold turkey without knowing it.
My experience was a vivid demonstration of withdrawal physiology, which is pretty much the same reason that one million Britons have headaches from overusing painkillers. Whenever your body gets artificial help of any kind in feeling better, it suffers when the help runs out. Overuse a pain-killer, and your body starts to depend on it — and not just the hard stuff.
Even ordinary pain-killers may actually lead to more pain over time, if you take quite a lot of them, through an effect known as “analgesic rebound” — your body gets used to the drug supply and starts to dial down its own pain-management systems, so you end up feeling more pain when you reduce your intake. This can be a subtle vicious cycle that can go on for years without being particularly obvious — just routinely making things a little worse.
When people are troubleshooting pain, they don’t usually think of their pain meds. Or coffee. We should start!
Three amusing migraine items from cantakerous neurologist blogger, Dr. Grumpy:
I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and assistant editor of Science-Based Medicine. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook and Google, but mostly Twitter.
Tuesday, March 17, 2015 — Added a section about post-concussion syndrome headaches.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013 — Added “A terrible, horrible, no good headache,” a cautionary tale about coffee, addiction, pain, and analgesic rebound.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009 — Updated information about migraines to clarify their differences from tension headaches.