Michael Castleman

Did you know that snoring can cause tension headaches? So can working at a computer and drinking coffee.

In fact, these are just a few of the things that can cause the muscles around your head and neck to tighten up and trigger a tension headache. No wonder then that tension headaches are the most common type of headache, afflicting nearly four out of five adults at some point in their lives, according to the National Headache Foundation.

Often called "hatband headaches," these headaches frequently feel as if you're wearing a hat that is too tight. The pain can also feel as if it's radiating out of the upper neck. Typically it's a steady ache, not a throbbing.

Fortunately, many tension headaches can be prevented with simple lifestyle adjustments. Consider the following:

Stop snoring

Snoring and a related condition called sleep apnea can cause tension in neck muscles, which can cause headache.

Since you're most likely to snore if you sleep on your back, using a special pillow that encourages you to sleep on your side can help. So can sewing a tennis ball into a pocket on the back of your pajama tops. If snoring is particularly loud and punctuated with brief choking silences, ask your doctor about sleep apnea, a related condition where the airway becomes blocked, which interferes with breathing. Researchers in Norway have discovered that people who suffer from wake-up headaches are seven times more likely to have sleep apnea compared to people who don't.

Reduce stress

Ohio University researchers gave 203 tension headache sufferers several treatments, among them stress management training.

More than two years later, the stress management group reported significantly fewer headaches. "A daily stress management regimen is one of the best defenses against tension headache," says alternative medicine expert and author, Andrew Weil, M.D. "Meditation, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi -- I suggest using one or more of these shortly after waking or right before bed and any time you feel stressed."

Get moving

A brisk, 45-minute walk three or more days a week can relieve stress and reduce the frequency of tension headaches considerably, reports Fred Sheftell, M.D., of the New England Center for Headache in Stamford, Conn.

Stretch your neck muscles

Don't sit hunched over with your shoulders up by your ears.

Train yourself to sit straight with shoulders dropped. You should feel a slight, pleasant pulling in the back of your neck, says Anne Simons, M.D., a family practitioner in San Francisco. In addition, stretch your neck muscles several times a day, especially when working at a computer. Roll your head in slow circles clockwise and counterclockwise.

Massage your neck

When you feel any neck soreness, take a few minutes to massage the muscles at the back of your neck, recommends Walker Robinson, M.D., a neurosurgeon in Champaign, Ill. Researchers in Finland massaged the heads, necks and shoulders of 21 women who had chronic tension headaches. After 10 massages over six months, their headache frequency dropped significantly.

Another option: Place an ice pack, bag of frozen peas or a cool, damp towel on the back of your neck.

Quit smoking

Smoking increases the risk of headaches because it constricts blood vessels, limiting blood flow to the head and neck muscles.

Try acupressure

German researchers gave 270 chronic tension headache sufferers one of three treatments: real acupuncture, sham acupuncture (needles in places that are not true acupuncture points) or no treatment. Real acupuncture worked best, cutting headache frequency in half. You can get similar benefits at home with do-it-yourself acupressure, which uses finger pressure instead of needles. Try placing one finger in each of the hollows on either side of the base of your neck. Press firmly for a minute or two several times a day or whenever you feel stressed. Another good acupressure point is located in the webbing between your thumb and index finger. Use the thumb and index finger of the opposite hand to pinch this spot; hold for a few minutes, then switch hands.

Eliminate caffeine -- slowly

Coffee, tea and caffeinated sodas can increase muscle tension and therefore tension headaches, Dr. Weil explains. But if you consume caffeine regularly, don't stop cold turkey since quitting suddenly can cause a caffeine-withdrawal headache that may last for several days. Instead, wean yourself slowly.

Keep a headache diary

"Every time you get a headache, jot down the date and time and any psychological, physical or environmental factors you think might have contributed to it, including foods and beverages consumed during the previous few hours," Dr. Simons advises.

With a little luck, you'll see a pattern you can change, and you won't have to suffer that "vice-around-the-head" sensation as often, if at all!


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Health - No More Headaches