Could relaxation techniques help prevent or relieve my tension headaches?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I suffer from awful tension headaches. Could mind-body techniques help to prevent or relieve them?

DEAR READER:

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. Many people describe the sensation as a dull tightness or pressure that feels like a band wrapped tightly around the head.

Unlike migraine headaches, a tension headache is steady: It doesn’t throb. Also, it typically starts by hurting around the entire head. In contrast, migraine headaches tend to start on just one side of the head, often near the temple or eye. Mind-body therapies can help with tension headaches.

Tension headaches are probably the result of abnormal pain sensors in the tissues of the scalp. These sensors appear to be more sensitive, and more likely to send pain signals to the brain. Also, in people with repeated tension headaches, the pain-sensing parts of the brain also seem to become more sensitive to pain signals. Why all this happens is uncertain.

Mind-body therapies include meditation, relaxation techniques, yoga, hypnosis, stress management and biofeedback. These therapies lower stress, which is a widely accepted trigger of headaches. They also promote healthier lifestyle habits, such as getting adequate sleep, which can help to keep headaches at bay.

About half of all headache sufferers use some type of mind-body technique to alleviate the pain. Which techniques will be most useful for you will depend on your personal preferences, but in general, for tension headaches, relaxation techniques and muscle biofeedback seem to help the most:

RELAXATION TECHNIQUES: These can relax your muscles and ease tension, which should help reduce headache pain. No single relaxation technique works better than the others. Experiment until you find the approach that helps you the most. Whichever technique you choose, it will work only if you do it on a regular basis. Daily is best. Options include:

  • Deep diaphragmatic breathing. This involves breathing so that your abdomen (rather than your chest) expands with each breath.
  • Meditation. You learn to turn your attention inward rather than being distracted by outside events.
  • Visualization. You imagine a peaceful scene that relaxes you.

BIOFEEDBACK: With biofeedback you use a machine to monitor specific body functions. The machine translates these readings into a blinking light, a beeping sound or some other signal. You can gauge how your body is reacting by observing these signals. You then learn relaxation exercises and thought patterns to change and control those reactions.

Say, for example, that tension in your shoulder or neck muscles causes or worsens your tension headaches. You will learn to recognize tense muscles and effectively relax them.

Two types of biofeedback are commonly used to manage headaches:

  • Surface electromyography measures electrical activity in a muscle through small metal plates that are placed on the skin.
  • Thermal biofeedback measures finger temperature.

Biofeedback should be done only with the help of a skilled professional. Ask your doctor for a referral.