Got stress? Then you're probably no stranger to stress or tension headaches. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 30 to 80 percent of Americans are plagued by occasional tension headaches, which afflict women two times more than men. These headaches cause considerable pain and can be debilitating.

Tension headaches may be episodic—occurring less than 15 days a month—explains the Cleveland Clinic. Or, they can be chronic, which means they may crop up more than 15 days a month. In most cases, tension headaches occur less than three times a month.

What is a Tension Headache?

Tension headaches, which are also called muscle-contraction headaches, often begin in the back of your head and travel forward often targeting your neck, scalp and head, explains the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC).

Symptoms of a Tension Headache

According to the UMMC, other signs of a tension headache include:

  • dull pressure or squeezing pain, which may feel like a tight band around your head
  • tight or sore muscles in your neck, shoulders and jaw
  • pain and pressure that affects both sides of your head equally
  • problems sleeping or eating

Causes of Tension Headaches

As indicated, stress plays a big role in tension headaches. Possible stressors include financial or relationship problems, competing in sports, or going through a change, such as moving. Researchers believe that stress headaches may be brought on by changes to neurotransmitters, or chemicals in the brain. These changes stimulate pain pathways in the brain.

Other possible contributing factors the UMMC point to include:

  • poor posture--slouching at your desk, or keeping your shoulders hunched for instance
  • depression or anxiety
  • fatigue
  • sleeping in an awkward position
  • holding your head in one position for a prolonged period (for instance, when using the computer)
  • head or neck injury
  • bruxism (grinding your teeth)
  • eye strain
  • medications

Treatment for Tension Headaches

Occasional tension headaches can be effectively treated with over-the-counter  pain medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. You should take the lowest possible dose and never exceed the frequency of the dose.

However, if you suffer from frequent tension headaches, you should seek medical attention. Trying to control them on your own may cause you to overuse other-the-counter pain medications and lead to rebound headaches. Or, you could become addicted to them.

Other possible treatments for tension headaches include:

  • Stress reduction. Try to find ways to alleviate some of the stress in your life, such as asking for help, or letting go of perfectionist tendencies. Some companies wisely provide stress management seminars for employees, and they are also offered at community centers. Sign up for one as soon as possible.
  • Relaxation exercises. Deep-breathing exercises, yoga, tai chi, or meditation can all help to reduce stress, relax your muscles, and prevent tension headaches. You may also find relief from gently rubbing peppermint oil onto your temples.
  • Biofeedback. This form of complementary and alternative medicine can help to identify what's causing tension in your body and ways to release the tension.
  • Antidepressant. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the antidepressant, amitriptyline, is the most effective medication for tension headaches, providing relief for about 65 percent of patients who use it. Make sure you ask about any potential side effects.
  • Massage therapy. Research shows that massage therapy significantly reduces the frequency and duration of chronic tension headaches.
  • Counselling. If you suffer from depression or chronic anxiety, you should consult a psychologist. Cognitive behavioral therapy or group counselling may help you battle these conditions.
  • Medical intervention. Visit your doctor to seek treatment for health problems such as bruxism and temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which can cause tension headaches. Wearing a mouth guard when you're sleeping can help relieve either condition.
  • Rest. Aim for at least six to eight hours of sleep each night, and try to go to bed at the same time each night to ward off fatigue and tension headaches.