The most common type of headache is tension headaches. Approximately 90% of headaches fall into this category. People with this type of headache typically feel like they have a rubber band wrapped too tightly around their head. The level of pain can vary from mild to fairly severe – in the worst form, pain spreads from the head and covers the shoulders, neck and upper back. Other unpleasant symptoms may also be present. For example, your scalp, neck and shoulder may be sore and painful to touch. You may also feel extremely tired and easily irritated, and may have to struggle to concentrate. Trouble sleeping and a diminished appetite are also common symptoms.
Depending on how often you experience them, tension headaches can be broken down into 3 different classifications. Episodic headaches are usually sporadic and occur less than once a month. Frequent tension headaches happen 1-5 times in a given month. The most frequent type of tension headache is classified as chronic. These can occur 15 or more days per month, which means that sufferers of this type of headache are in pain for at least half of their waking hours.
What causes a tension headache? As far as the biomechanical mechanisms that make you feel pain are concerned, there are two schools of thought. The first school of thought states that tension headaches are primarily caused by…tension. This theory holds that such factors as stress and anxiety cause muscles in your face, neck and scalp to tense up, causing your headache. However, some researchers today believe that tension headaches don’t come from muscle tension at all, but rather from imbalances in brain chemicals and neurotransmitters.
For example, researchers are now able to use special machine called an electromyogram to measure muscle contractions, and they have not found a pattern of increased muscle tension that is specific to tension headaches. People with tension headaches are found to be tense, but not any more or less tense than people with migraines. Additionally, they show alterations in the levels of two very important types of brain chemical: serotonins and endorphins.
Serotonin helps the brain control mood, sleep and appetite, and serotonin imbalances can also cause clinical depression. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. Changes in the levels of these chemicals interfere with the body’s ability to control pain, and are found in people with both tension headaches and migraines.
No one is sure what causes these changes in brain chemicals. The only thing researchers are certain of right now is that there is a connection between altered levels of these neurotransmitters and various types of headache. However, muscle tension may still be a major contributing factor to tension headache.