May 1st, 2017

Dr Dillon D’souza shows you how to reduce stress and prevent headaches.

While many people associate the term ‘stress’ with psychological stress, scientists and physicians use this term to denote any force that impairs the stability and balance of bodily functions. Some stress is required for normal functioning and efficiency. It is only when stress is overwhelming or poorly managed, that its negative effects appear.

Tension Headaches are the most common types of headaches and are caused by stress (both mental and physical), impaired sleep or skipping meals. Most of the time when people say they have a headache, it is a tension headache. Children and teens experience tension headaches more often than adults, with females being affected twice as much as males.

What causes it?

The exact cause of tension headaches is still not known, but contributing conditions have been identified.

  • Conditions that contribute to tension headaches are eye problems, improper spectacles, eye strain, overexertion, anxiety, muscle strain caused by poor posture including slouching at a desk, tight hairstyles and tight-fitting headbands or hats.
  • Strenuous exercise, including those in the bedroom, can cause tension headaches which cause psychological blocks to such activities.
  • Foods like processed or aged foods (chocolates, red wine, aged cheese, cheddar, blue cheese and parmesan) can cause migraines. Processed meats such as cold cuts also have a similar effect.
  • Smoking, including inhaling secondhand smoke, and consuming an overdose of coffee can cause headaches.

Symptoms of a tension headache

  • Most tension headaches occur infrequently and are short-lived. In rare cases, it may last days. Headaches that last more than 15 days a month are referred to as chronic tension headaches.
  • Some people have a combination of migraine and tension headaches. Tension headaches can be a trigger for migraine.

Migraine is differentiated from Tension Headaches by the following:

  • Sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, vomiting and often one-sided throbbing pain which worsens on exertion. Triggers for migraines include weather change, strong smells or hair accessories like sprays and hairnets.
  • A tension headache typically involves the whole head, but may begin at the back of the head or above the eyebrows. The pain is characteristically constant. Mild hypersensitivity to light and sound may occur.


  • Tension headaches and migraine are diagnosed by physical examination and a headache history of the patient. Usually, apart from basic blood tests, no additional tests are required for tension headaches.

How to treat a tension headache

Exercises: Including physiotherapy, stress management and relaxation techniques comprising meditation, yoga relaxation techniques, time-management skills, counselling or group therapy are beneficial.
Exercising and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle, breathing exercises and other alternative therapies like guided imagery, biofeedback, tai chi, qigong and progressive muscle relaxation work well too.

Caution with medications: Overuse of painkillers makes headaches worse. Products with aspirin should not be given to children because a condition called Reye’s Syndrome (vomiting and mental status changes, liver damage, high blood ammonia levels, low glucose levels and occasionally permanent brain damage), which is rare but is often severe or even fatal, may occur.

Non-medicinal options: Can include massage therapy, hot and ice packs or acupuncture. Learning to identify stressful situations which trigger headaches and taking steps to avoid these is also a useful strategy for many individuals.

Improved work posture, using chairs with lower back support, keeping the computer monitor brightness just right, and never holding a phone between the shoulder and ear are some things to prevent tension headaches. Maintain a headache diary to identify triggers and then avoid them.

Home remedies to cure tension headaches

  • Hot compress or ice packs.
  • Drinking some non-caffeinated fluids or eating something may help.
  • Eating foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acids like flaxseeds or fish.
  • Peppermint or lavender oil vapour inhalations.
  • Scalp or whole body massage.

See a doctor if:

  • You experience regular headaches or if they have changed in severity, location or frequency.
  • You experience a headache that is very different from your usual headaches.
  • Previously helpful treatments are no longer effective.

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