Tension headaches. What are they and how can we help you?

Here at Santi, we frequently have clients who have been struggling with persistent headaches.

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache with research showing approximately 86% of women and 63% of men to suffer from them. The term “tension” refers to the muscle tension often leading to the onset of a headache, with tightness experienced in the back of the neck, top of the shoulders and the top of the back. The pain experienced can be mild to moderate and there are various treatments available to manage them.

Episodic and chronic headaches

· Tension headaches are divided into two main categories: episodic and chronic.

· Episodic tension headaches can last from 30minutes to a week. Frequent headaches of this type occur less than 15 days per month for at least 3 months. Frequent episodic tension headaches can become chronic.

· Chronic tension headaches can last hours and may be continuous. Headaches are considered chronic if they occur for 15 or more days per month for at least 3 months.

Is it a tension headache or a migraine?

· It is hard to differentiate between tension headaches and migraines, but additionally you can suffer from both.

· However, unlike some migraines, tension headaches usually are not associated with nausea, vomiting or visual disturbances, and they are not aggravated by physical exertion as migraines typically are.

Tension headaches: signs and symptoms

· Dull, aching head pain

· Tight or pressure sensation across the forehead, on the sides or back of the head

· Tenderness on the scalp, neck and shoulder muscles.


So first, before we go into the treatment options, let’s take a look at why we get these headaches in the first place.

At the back of the skull there is a bone called the “occipital bone”, and at the bottom of this is a bump called the “occiput”, and some of the muscles that generally cause tension headaches attach to the occiput. Specific muscles which are common culprits when it comes to tension headaches are:

· Splenius capitis

· Trapezius

· Sternocleidomastoid

· Levator scapulae (this muscle runs underneath the trapezius and attaches to the transverse processes of the vertebrae up to the skull.

Some key causes of tension in these muscles are:


Head forward posture: so many of us are guilty of having our head forward. Whether it’s a result of sitting at a computer, reading a phone, or driving, many of us have poor posture which leads to the muscles at the back of the neck becoming over-used and building up tension.


Stress: we often adopt a rigid upper body position when we are stressed which means shoulder and neck muscles are placed under tension for prolonged periods of time.


Repetitive movements: overuse of muscles during sport or activity can lead to tension too however stress and posture are more common causes.

Treating tension headaches: the benefits of massage

Finally, onto the most important section; how do we get rid of this pain?

Well, there are several modalities to try and alleviate tension headaches, with massage proven to be one of the most beneficial of these.

Of course, with postural related issues, improving posture is a must, but that is not a quick fix. In the meantime, there are a few options available to provide quick results.

Applying a hot water bottle to the back of the neck and shoulders or having a hot bath will with muscle tension, however, you may find this to be only a temporary fix, with muscle tension returning when the muscles have cooled down again.

Massage is a great way to target tension headaches and reduce stress, having been proven to successfully prevent and treat stress-related head pain. Studies have also shown that, with regards to tension headaches, massage can decrease perceived pain, reduce then frequency, duration and intensity of headaches, decrease related anger and reduce medication usage. Massage also has the added benefits of helping to improve sleep and reduce levels of stress and anxiety by inducing feelings of wellbeing (due to a release of endorphins). Additionally, massage can act as a successful preventative measure for headaches, as well as a treatment plan.

Research has showed that individuals who received massage therapy suffered from fewer migraines and headaches and achieved better sleep quality during the weeks in which they received massage and the three weeks following treatment than those who did not receive treatment. Another study found that in adults with migraines, massage therapy reduced the occurrence of headaches, sleep disturbance and distress, and led to an increase in levels of serotonin (important in mood, sleep and appetite regulation).

Depending on your areas of tension, your therapist will focus on the tight muscles surrounding your neck, the head, shoulders and even face; loosening the muscles and tendons to improve circulation and flexibility in the targeted areas. The suboccipital muscles (the ones at the base of your skull) will be particularly worked on to really reduce the build up of tension.

So, whether you are suffering from headaches or simply wish to reduce the chance of one coming on, massage therapy is a proven, successful treatment; and here at Santi, our experienced therapists are ready and waiting to assist you.