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Headache Causes: The 18 Most Common Sources
of Headaches and What You Need to Know and Do

About 4 percent to 5 percent of U.S. adults suffer from chronic headaches, which may occur nearly every day, according to the Mayo Clinic. While an occasional headache is something that most people experience, frequent headaches can be a warning sign that something is amiss in your body.


If you get frequent headaches, it's likely to be a tension-type headache. They account for 75-90 percent of frequent headaches.

The cause of the most commonly reported headache, tension headaches, is actually still unknown. An estimated 75 percent to 90 percent of people who complain of frequent headaches are suffering from tension headaches.

Some experts believe they stem from contracted muscles, while others believe they're related to changes in your brain chemicals, such as serotonin, endorphins and others, which help your nerves communicate.

The good news is that these headaches are rarely the sign of something serious (see the end of the article for some rare, but serious, causes). Instead, tension-type headaches are related to lifestyle factors that you can influence.

The most common triggers of tension headaches include:

  1. Stress

  2. Not enough sleep

  3. Certain foods and food additives, such as chocolate, cheese, caffeine and monosodium glutamate (MSG).

  4. Grinding your teeth

  5. Depression and anxiety

  6. Skipping meals

  7. Poor posture

  8. Lack of exercise

  9. Holding your head or neck in an awkward position for a long time

  10. Hormonal changes related to menstruation (PMS), menopause, pregnancy or hormone use

  11. Medications, including those for depression and high blood pressure, or overusing headache medication

  12. Overexerting yourself

  13. Sleeping in an awkward position

  14. Eye strain

  15. Fatigue

  16. Smoking

  17. Alcohol

  18. Sinus infections, colds or flu

What do Tension Headaches Feel Like?

Typically, tension headaches cause an aching or squeezing sensation on both sides of your head, forehead, temples or back of head. The pain is often described as a tight band around your head, or a feeling that your head is "in a vise." The pain may be mild to moderately intense.

Tension headaches may also include:

  • Neck and jaw discomfort

  • Insomnia

  • Tenderness on your scalp, neck and shoulder muscles

  • Fatigue

  • Irritability and trouble concentrating

  • Loss of appetite

If you experience visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain or weakness, you are likely having a migraine headache rather than a tension headache, as these symptoms are rare with tension headaches. Most people who get migraine headaches also experience tension-type headaches, but not necessarily vice versa.

headaches and tension

Just anticipating a stressful event can bring on a tension headache if you're prone to them.

Tension headaches can come on at any time, but may be more common when you're anticipating a stressful event, such as a confrontation at work or at home. They can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a full week.

How to Prevent, and Care For, Tension Headaches

Lifestyle changes will go far in keeping tension headaches at bay. The top tips for headache relief include:

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.

  • Get enough quality sleep each night. If you have difficulty sleeping, try listening to the highly recommended Sleep Easy CD to help you "shift gears" and relax into sleep.

  • Exercise -- it's known to reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic. Exercise may even help to relieve the pain of a tension headache in progress.

  • Improve your posture. This will help to keep strain on your muscles, tendons and bones to a minimum.

  • Keep your stress well-managed. We all have stress; it's the way you deal with it that makes all the difference. Schedule regular times to de-stress during your day by meditating, soaking in a bubble bath, reading or taking a long walk.

  • Learn the fine art of stretching! Regular stretching is well known to help relieve pain, including headache pain. To learn how to do the right type of stretching -- the kind that actually feel good while you do them (and after!) -- we highly recommend the Stretching Toward a Healthier Life DVD.

  • Get regular massages. Massages can help to relieve headache pain, and they also loosen up tight muscles in your neck and shoulders, which may also be contributing to your headache.

  • Pay attention to "triggers." If you experience frequent headaches, experts recommend keeping a "headache diary." In it, record what took place before your headache began. Did you have a double espresso? It may be the caffeine. Did you walk by a perfume counter? You may be sensitive to fragrances.

When Can Headaches be Serious?

The majority of headaches do not signal an underlying illness, but in rare cases headaches can be related to serious conditions including brain aneurysm, brain tumor, stroke, or a brain infection like meningitis or encephalitis.

You should see a health care provider right away if you:

  • Experience a severe headache that comes on suddenly

  • Have fever, a stiff neck, mental confusion, numbness, weakness or double vision along with your headache

  • Are over the age of 50 and start to experience headache pain you've never felt before

  • Get headaches from coughing, moving quickly or straining

  • Have a headache after a head injury

Recommended Reading

Physical Pain: 8 Non-Drug Tactics to Eliminate Back, Joint & Other Pain

How To Cope in a Stressful World that Makes Constant Demands of You 24 Hours A Day


MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia

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