What Causes Tension Headaches

Tension Headaches & Posture

Postural tension headaches are a very common cause of tension headaches. We live in a world that predisposes us to poor posture, and our necks are one of the most common casualties. Our necks, that can cause headaches through their complex connections to the sensory nerves in our heads.

When your posture isn’t mostly held within the ideal range your neck may suffer. If you habitually sit with rounded shoulders and a sunken chest it causes shortening and compression of the vertebrae and soft tissues of the neck. Over time, as the upper back muscles weaken and the soft tissues adapt, our necks can become chronically shortened and drop forward, this is called a ‘forward head carriage’. 

Another type of postural headache is the tension headache caused by unnatural sleeping postures. If you spend 8 hours per night at an awkward neck angle it can be just as bad as working 8 hours per day at a poor workstation. 

The impact of poor posture and chronically shortened neck tissues can induce muscle tightness, muscle trigger points, disc compression, scar tissue formation and joint inflammation. These kinds of changes are what turn a posturally compromised neck into a very stiff, sore neck. 

Tension Headaches & Occupation

Most of us spend a very significant portion of our lives working, and our necks must come along for the ride whether they like it or not. 

The classic occupational tension headache these days is the one that relates to desk work. It has been estimated that we are only around 20% as physically active as our great grandparents. Office workers partly drive those stats. Necks don’t benefit from being sat still in one position all day every day’, because it just isn’t natural for them. Unnatural activity means unnatural strain. Muscle tightness, muscle wasting, muscles trigger points, disc compression, scar tissue formation, and joint inflammation are all potentially on the table. All of which have the potential to generate referred pain patterns to the head.

Occupational strain isn’t limited to desk work of course.  Professional sportspeople, truck drivers, and tradespeople are all classic and self-explanatory examples. The common theme is repetitive or stubborn compression of the delicate tissues in the neck, either by persistently unnatural or excessive loading.

Tension Headaches & Old Injuries  

One of the most common causes of stubborn tension headaches is old injuries to the neck that were not properly treated. These injuries can range from car crashes, sports injuries, and falls right through to birth trauma. 

The most classic history behind an old injury causing present day tension headaches is a past injury of some kind that caused pain, but that later settled. Then some years later, stubborn tension headaches and/or headaches develop, seemingly out of the blue.. 

The simple fact is that injuries only heal if they are given sufficient rest. The human neck has to bear the weight of an unusually large skull relative to body size; it does this all day every day, year in and year out. In other words neck injuries often don’t get the rest they need to heal the same way a wrist or hand might. Add to this the fact that we don’t generally do much by way of rehab for neck injuries in our culture and you have a recipe for unhealed trauma.

Necks with unhealed injuries generally suffer from a combination of scar tissue build-up, joint inflammation, and chronic muscle tension. Some cases even develop osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease. All of the above are common contributors to tension headaches.

Tension Headaches & Clenching

Neck and jaw clenching  in most cases inseparable from factors like occupational stress, interpersonal stress and sometimes also emotional trauma. A major part of what we experience as ‘stress’ is made up of habitual clenching or tightening of certain muscle groups in relation to particular ‘life themes’. Some of us tend to clench more around our solar plexus, some of us clench around our hips, some clench around our shoulders, others clench most intensely around our neck and jaw. 

Those of us who tend to clench around our neck and jaw are more prone to tension headaches, when this tendency is combined with stressful situations it can be a very potent recipe for tension headaches, and migraines too for that matter. 

Jaw clenching is far more well known than neck clenching, for a grim but interesting reason. The reason so many people are aware that they clench their jaw is that they do it so loudly in their sleep that it wakes other people up. The resulting noise leads to a household reputation for ‘teeth grinding’. The distressing thing about this is that those who ‘grind’ at night also clenche during the day but are almost never aware that they do because it has become such an entrenched habit it just feels normal. What happens at night is the conscious mind switches off and the subconscious clenching habit takes control and is magnified.

Chronic clenching in the neck and jaw eventually creates headaches by inflicting repetitive strain injuries on the soft tissues in the neck and jaw. Teeth grinding is powerful enough to break down the hardest substance in the human body (tooth enamel) so our delicate soft tissues stand no chance. Happily though most of these injuries can heal, and the clenching itself can be worked on over time.

Tension Headaches & Stress

Inseparable from the clenching topic is the connection between ‘life stress’ and tension headaches. Stress is universally known for being a reliable headache trigger, we would go one step further and refer to it as a ‘headache cause’.

When we ‘feel stressed’ a major part of that feeling is the muscle tension we hold when we are consistently experiencing things we don’t love. There is nothing wrong with a bit of stress and a bit of muscle tension. It’s when they build up over time with no release that stress and muscle tension become the type of problem that can create headaches.

The tension we hold in our neck and shoulders when we are stressed is a major source of irritation to the soft tissues deep in the neck. Over time spent habitually clenching and holding postural tension in response to stress the delicate neck tissues become stiff and inflamed. Stiff and inflamed tissues deep in the neck are a super reliable cause of headaches.

The traditional medical explanation of stress as a ‘trigger’ for tension headaches is worth questioning. There is no doubt that acute episodes of stress are a major trigger for tension headache sufferers. Stubborn patterns of stress may be a major underlying ‘root cause’ of the tissue irritation that leads to tension headaches as well. Naturally other factors like genetics and diet will play a role, we suspect from experience that they are actually far less important.

The good news about tension headaches that relate to stubborn patterns of stress is that they are generally much easier to control and manage than the stress itself. If you can get on top of the ‘build ups’ of tension and inflammation in the soft tissues of the neck you may find dramatic improvements in your headache issues.