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Tension Headache, Ambulatory Care

A tension headache

is often caused by tense muscles in your head or neck and can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several days. Although they are uncomfortable, tension headaches usually do not cause any serious problems. The following can cause muscle tension and trigger a tension headache:

  • Eye strain or poor posture
  • Jaw or dental problems such as temporomandibular joint (TMJ), clenching your jaw, or grinding your teeth
  • Activities that cause your head to be held in one position for too long
  • Skipping a meal
  • Not enough sleep or sleep apnea (brief periods of not breathing during sleep)
  • Food sensitivities, such as to gluten

Common symptoms include the following:

  • Dull, constant pain above your eyes and across the back of your head
  • Head pain that gets worse as the day goes on
  • Pain that may spread over your entire head and to your neck and shoulders
  • Tight neck or shoulder muscles
  • Head pain that is made worse by bright lights or loud noises

Seek immediate care for the following symptoms:

  • A sudden headache that seems different or much worse
  • Trouble seeing, speaking, or moving
  • Confusion or feeling faint
  • A headache, fever, and a stiff neck

Treatment for a tension headache

depends on what is causing your headache. You may need medicines to decrease pain. Take them as directed. You may also need to see healthcare providers that specialize in back, muscle, or jaw problems.

Manage my symptoms:

  • Keep a record of your headaches. Write down when your headaches start and stop. Include your symptoms and what you were doing when the headache began. Record what you ate or drank for 24 hours before the headache started. Describe the pain and where it hurts. Keep track of what you did to treat your headache and whether it worked.
  • Apply heat on your head for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours for as many days as directed. Heat helps decrease pain and muscle spasms. You may alternate heat and ice.
  • Apply ice on your head for 15 to 20 minutes every hour or as directed. Use an ice pack, or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel. Ice helps decrease pain.

Prevent a tension headache:

  • Avoid muscle tension. Do not stay in one position for long periods of time. Use a different pillow if you wake up with sore neck and shoulder muscles. Find ways to relax your muscles, such as massage or resting in a quiet, dark room.
  • Avoid eye strain. Make sure you have good lighting when you read, sew, or other similar activities. Get yearly eye exams and wear glasses as directed.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. Avoid foods that trigger your headaches.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise helps decrease stress and headaches. Ask about the best exercise plan for you.
  • Do not drink alcohol. Alcohol can trigger a headache. It can also interfere with the medicines used to treat your headache.
  • Do not smoke. If you smoke, it is never too late to quit. Tobacco smoke can trigger a headache. Ask for information if you need help quitting.

Follow up with your healthcare provider as directed:

Bring your headache log with you when you see your healthcare provider. Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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