Did the Holidays leave you with a headache?

Busy times can create extra stress and tension, often leading to what are known as tension headaches.  But not all headaches are created equally.  Here are a few tips to help you know if that lingering throb is just a reminder of relatives who finally left town, or something more serious that you should seek treatment for.


Often considered the “common headache,” a tension headache typically lasts 30 minutes to 7 days.  It is usually felt on both sides of the head, and often described as a painful pressing or tightness felt behind the eyes, in back of the head, or near the temples.  While a tension headache is annoying and can make you want to just close your eyes and take a nap, usually the symptoms are not severe enough to truly keep you from going about your daily activities.  Be sure to get enough sleep, drink enough water, and take some time out to relax.  Massage of the neck and shoulder muscles can often help alleviate symptoms as well.  Other causes of tension headache can be hunger, eye strain (too many hours staring at the computer online shopping perhaps?), and even caffeine withdrawal.


Migraine headaches are often much more severe than tension headaches.

These may last 4-72 hours and are described as a more intense, pulsating pain usually one on side of the head. The severity of a migraine is typically such that you are unable to go about your daily activities.  Sometimes it can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, seeing spots or “floaters,” and may be aggravated by physical activity.  If you are experiencing what you think is a migraine, contact your doctor.  Your doctor will be able to help you determine if over the counter medications (i.e. Tylenol, Advil) are appropriate, or if you would benefit more from a prescription medication.


It’s a pain in the neck!  Okay, well, the pain is still in your head, but sometimes, a headache can be caused by your neck.  If you find that your headache is brought on by neck movement, or staying in a certain posture for too long (did you get too cozy watching all the football bowl games on the couch?), you may have what is called a cervicogenic headache.  Other signs include neck stiffness, and pain in the neck, shoulder, or on one side of your body.

Typically, a cervicogenic headache is felt on one side of the head only.  It can be moderate to severe in intensity, and varies in duration if not continuous.  Usually this type of headache does not throb.  Some people also report feeling difficulty or pain with swallowing.  If you think this describes your headache, seek treatment from a physical therapist who will be able to help decrease the pain and help you prevent this from happening again.

As you can tell, there is some overlap with the various categories of headache.  The good news is that many headaches respond well to physical therapy.  Poor postural habits, joint stiffness in the spine, and muscular strength and flexibility imbalances can all contribute to the development of headaches and can be effectively addressed by your physical therapist. Contact your physician to see if Physical Therapy can help you.


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