OverviewOverview
When to see doctorWhen to see your doctor
Make simple changesMake simple changes
Buy something to tryBuy something to try
Attend classesAttend classes / visit practitioner
ReferencesReferences
Print Friendly Version

Warning
Warning:

This site gives you information NOT medical advice. You should consult your medical practitioner if you have any unexplained symptoms of illness or concerns about treatment. Do not stop a prescribed conventional treatment without consulting a doctor. Tell all the practitioners you're working with, conventional or complementary, about any medicines, remedies, herbs or supplements you are taking or considering using.

Headaches

What do mean by headaches?

Most people get headaches from time to time. In the UK, tension-type headaches affect around 65% of men and over 80% of women. Up to 1 in 20 adults has a headache every day or nearly every day. Although common and treatable, tension-type headaches can be debilitating and may cause concern. The good news is that the vast majority of headaches require no expensive tests or specialists, only appropriate changes in lifestyle and proper use of simple over-the-counter medicines, available from pharmacies.

Different types of headaches:

  • Tension-type headache is the most common kind. About half of adults have occasional achy tension-type headache - less than one a month, usually lasting only a few hours. They make both sides of the head hurt and sometimes the neck too. A tension-type headache can last from half an hour to a week. They are twice as common in women as in men.
  • Medication overuse headache happens when people take large amounts of painkillers over long periods of time. Up to 2% of people get this type of headache, but women are five times more likely to get it. If used too frequently, painkillers lose their effectiveness and can even cause more headaches.
  • A chronic headache is a headache that lasts for 15 or more days a month. They can be tension-type headaches, medication-overuse headaches or migraines.
  • Migraines are common too but they are not due to muscle tension. Often throbbing and one-sided, they can cause sickness or vomiting and visual disturbance (such as flashing lights, stars, patchy loss of sight, blurring and zig-zags). Migraines are three times more common in women than in men. And women who get migraines get them more often than men do. (If you get migraines, see our Migraine leaflet).
  • Cluster headaches are much less common. They take the form of a severe, one-sided headache.

Note: The information in this leaflet is for people who get tension-type headaches.

What causes tension-type headaches?

Tension-type headaches are not always due to muscle tension. But feeling stressed or anxious will tend to tighten the muscles of the head and neck. This can lead to headaches because the head can weigh 10 pounds (4.5 kg) or more, so the neck muscles have to work hard to support and balance it and control its movements. Trigger points (sometimes wrongly called 'muscle knots') can form in tense, overworked muscles, and these are a common cause of aches and pains.

If you have a lot of tension-type headaches, keeping a headache diary may help you spot things that trigger them, such as stress or poor posture. Every day, note down when you get a headache, how bad it is and how long it lasts. Also, make a note of your mood and anything that causes you mental or physical strain, such as an argument or working at your computer for a long time without a break. Tense posture will soon stiffen neck and shoulder muscles.

What other information might be helpful?

  • if you often get aches and pains in several parts of your body, you might find our leaflet on SORE MUSCLES helpful
  • if you are feeling generally run-down and tired, you might find our leaflet on TIREDNESS AND FATIGUE helpful
  • if you think your headaches might be caused by lack of sleep, you might find our leaflet on SLEEP PROBLEMS helpful
  • if you think that you might be suffering from stress or anxiety (feeling nervous or having worrying thoughts that are making you feel very tense), you might find our leaflet on STRESS AND ANXIETY helpful
  • if you are feeling 'low' or depressed particularly when you wake and this seems to make the pain worse, you might like to see our leaflet on DEPRESSION.

See also the information about headaches from NHS Choices