Understanding Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are found in about 35% of the general population. This means seven million Australians are likely to have these headaches at any point in time. Osteopath Dr Phil Austin explains that tension headaches originate from muscles and joints in the neck and shoulders and are the most common form of headache.

Below we share some triggers for these headaches and a video of Dr Austin sharing his knowledge on why they occur and how to treat them.

Tension headaches are not life-threatening and usually are caused by poor work-related posture, stress or neck injuries such as whiplash. The exact cause of tension headaches is not clear however, certain things are known to trigger them including:

Stress and anxiety
People prone to tension headaches are often prone to the effects of stress as well as depression and anxiety. A major effect of these factors is muscle tension in the neck and shoulders that have attachments on and around the skull. Stress and anxiety contribute to reductions in pain thresholds, making it more likely that a headache will occur in situations others might consider normal.

Poor/uncomfortable work posture and/or sustained reading in association with bright lights.
Work stations, even when set up correctly, can cause headaches. The issue most relevant to headaches in these cases is monitor position. It should be at least 60cm away from you and slightly below eye level.

Eyesight can deteriorate without your knowing and is increasingly common as aging people use computers. Even if you have prescription glasses, it may be time to get reassessed. Be aware that wearing bifocals demands titling of the head backwards and can contract the neck muscles that attach to the back of the skull.

Irregular meal times
Hunger causes muscles in the neck to tighten and can trigger a headache. Missing or delaying meals also causes a drop in blood sugar levels that leads to the body releasing hormones to counter low glucose levels, which also trigger headaches.

Symptoms of a tension headache include:

  • Dull, persistent pain on both sides of the head and neck (may be more prominent on one side)
  • Constant tightness and pressure sensations around the head
  • Associated ache in the shoulder muscles
  • Associated stress and anxiety
  • Reduced ability to concentrate
  • Difficulty sleeping

If you experience tension headaches, there are various types of manual treatments that help to improve joint mobility and reduce muscle tension in the neck, shoulders and upper back. Treatments can include soft tissue massage and joint mobilisation using articulation and manipulation techniques. These aim to improve blood circulation to and from the head and neck. If you experience frequent tension headaches, keep a diary to try to identify what may causing them.

Know and understand triggers of your headache

  • Daily pattern of headache symptoms
  • What exacerbates and relieves your headaches
  • How much you slept the previous night(s)
  • Possible causes.

At work

  • Seek advice and be aware of your workplace posture
  • Move regularly (e.g. walk away from your desk every 30 minutes)
  • Stretch your neck, back and shoulders regularly when working on computers
  • Have your eyes checked regularly, even if you wear glasses.


  • Do regular exercise that increases your heart rate
  • Use a pillow that allows your head to rest in a neutral position
  • Ensure only your head rests on the pillow and not your shoulders
  • Become familiar with stress management (e.g. relaxation, exercise, time out)
  • Aim for between seven and eight hours of sleep per night.

Concerned about your headaches. Want an assessment by Osteopath Dr Phil Austin. You can book him online HERE.

Adapted from Phil Austin Osteopathy, http://www.osteopathy-chronicpain.com/

Recommended Posts