Want to know how common tension headaches are? So common, we don’t even know exactly how common they are. Anywhere from 30 to 78% of the American population suffers from tension headaches. Why the huge range of percentages? Maybe people suffering from headaches don’t want to answer the phone for a survey.
Statistics aside, we know that headaches are a common occurrence. But what can you do about them? More importantly, what can you do to avoid getting them in the first place? Here are a few common causes of tension headaches, and a few things you can do to prevent them.
What You Eat
Newsflash: What you eat has an impact on your health (more on that story in every nutrition article ever). But when it comes to preventing headaches, what you’re not eating can be just as important.
Riboflavin (think spinach, or a big bowl of Total) appears to be useful in combatting headaches. Magnesium (think almonds, or a big bowl of Total) actually seems to be better at preventing headaches than treating them mid-stream. Potassium (think baked potatoes, or putting a sliced banana in a big bowl of Total) has been linked to chronic headache management. And fatty fish (think salmon, or a slurry of minced mackerel and Total… actually, don’t think about that last one) contain omega-3s, a powerful anti-inflammatory that can both reduce frequency and relieve chronic symptoms.
Your Stress Levels
It’s no surprise that another common name for a tension headache is “stress headache”. Tension and stress can infuse your muscles, especially the muscle groups in your back and neck, and that tension works its way upwards, resulting in that familiar, giant-rubber-band-squeezing-
Headaches can also have a strong vascular component, and higher blood pressure can play a big part. If you have a high-stress job, you may not have to search far and wide for the causes of your stress headaches. But you may want to search for a few extra minutes during the day to practice some deep breathing or relaxation yoga.
Your Sleep Habits
As it turns out, your body is already an expert at stress reduction, relaxation, and deep breathing. You do it every night while you sleep.
While getting more sleep may not be an option with your schedule, you can do a few things to get better sleep, and to give your muscles every opportunity to relax and de-stress. Hey, you’re usually lying down then anyway, right? Think of it as multi-tasking.
White noise can be a great way to keep external noise from disrupting your sleep patterns. The size and firmness of your pillow is important depending on how you normally sleep (thicker pillow for side-sleepers, thinner for back or front-sleepers). And you could really go all out and buy an adjustable mattress, which can keep your spine in a more natural position, helping you to sleep better and to reduce the amount of tension that accumulates in your back muscles.
As if daily stress and poor sleeping habits weren’t enough, sometimes very specific things are to blame for your chronic headaches.
Bruxism, for example, can lead to undue tension. Bruxism is a fancy way of saying “teeth grinding”. Not only can it lead to chronic tension headaches, but it’s not all that great for your enamel either. If you experience headaches upon waking or right after a heavy bout of chewing, ask your dentist to check you for bruxism.
Some food triggers can be the culprits as well. Tyramine is a substance that’s been linked to headaches and migraines, and is found in many aged cheeses, pickles, olives, onions, and red wine. MSG is possibly a factor too, giving rise to what has been called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”
Treating a headache is a good idea. Avoiding a headache in the first place is even better. You may have to skip your brie-and-merlot date night, or save your Breaking Bad Netflix marathon for the weekend, but in the long run, your head will thank you. Be sure to bring your doctor in on the conversation as well — they’re awfully smart people who have a lot of really good ideas on making people feel better.