Introduction To Tension Headache Triggers

One of the challenges for scientists and headache sufferers alike is understanding and navigating the difference between a trigger and a cause. As an example, imagine that you didn’t know what heart disease is and what it is caused by. If you didn’t know the first thing about clogged arteries it would be easy to think that tennis and running up hill ‘cause’ heart attacks. As you and I both know however, tennis and hill running are merely the trigger, it is underlying changes in the arteries caused by diet, stress, genetics and lifestyle choices that are the cause of heart attacks.

Tension headaches can be better understood in terms of triggers AND causes, although the two can be hard to distinguish from one another. If you believe that everybody gets a headache every time they are tired you will assume that ‘tiredness causes tension headaches’. If you understand that tiredness is merely a trigger for some underlying issue you will be more inclined to look deeper into the issue, where there may be answers that bring relief.

Tension Headaches Triggered By Stress

Stress has been widely acknowledged as a trigger for tension headaches for a long time, if you are actually listening to your patients it’s not exactly hard to miss. Stress has a way of increasing the tension/tone of the muscles in the neck and jaw, over time this can cause irritation to the soft tissues in the neck. Stress can also cause changes in the way pain is ‘carried’ within the nervous system, in some cases this means we become far more prone to all forms of chronic pain including headaches.

When it comes to stress and tension headaches it is worth questioning the distinction between a ‘trigger’ and a ‘cause’. Stress can act both as a trigger and a cause for tension headaches. Acute episodes of muscle tension can flare up the tissues of the neck and jaw and trigger tension headaches, while chronic slow burning stress for extended periods can amount to a ‘fundamental cause’ of headaches due to the muscle tension it creates.

Tension Headaches Triggered By Squinting

Squinting has a small handful basic functions that it performs. Squinting assists with the muscles that focus our eyesight, protects our eyes from the likes of dust pathogens, protection from potentially harmful light sources. Squinting can also act as a metaphorical barrier to negative, suspicious or unwanted input from others during communication. Squinting is fundamentally and deliberately quite a ‘tense’ protective action that shields the eyes.

Some people find that when they are forced to squint for a period of time that it can act as a tension headache trigger. Our best guess as to why this is that the headache is triggered by irritable muscle groups in the face and scalp. We have literally hundreds of small muscle bundles in our face and scalp that are responsible for facial expressions, eating, talking, chewing and of course things like squinting. If these muscles are somewhat inflamed it would make sense that the tension of a squint might trigger pain in them.

Tension Headaches Triggered By Poor Posture

Posture is one of the most common ‘health issues’ that people in our society claim to struggle with, given the nature of the work we do it is hardly surprising. We have a strong sense that we are probably on average only ¼ as physically active during our lifetimes than our great great grandparents were, and possible only 1/10th as active as many of our hunter gatherer ancestors. All this inactivity leads to weakness in all our muscles, including those that hold our spines upright.

When our posture folds forward it causes the neck to collapse, over time this can cause irritation to the soft tissues of the neck. The most common way that this turns into a headache trigger is through periods of intense work, like a work deadline or uni exams. Extended periods spent with awkward posture that relate to tasks like painting ceilings can also trigger tension headaches. 

Tension Headaches Triggered By Tiredness

Tiredness is a major trigger for tension headaches, this can apply to episodes of tiredness on a given day or week, it can also apply to slow burning tiredness that builds over weeks and months. Lets be honest though, what doesn’t feel worse or hurt more often when we are tired and/or run down? Modern research into sleep has shown that sufficient sleep impacts everything from weight loss and cardio output to the likelyhood of alzheimers.

We don’t even have a theory as to why tiredness can trigger or worsen just about any pain or condition, even the experts don’t know what sleep is or why we need it afterall. What we are clear on is that if you are tired often with or without headaches you should take steps to remedy it. Tiredness as a persistent lifesyle finding may be as bad for us as dehydration and malnutrition.

Tension Headaches Triggered By Dehydration

Dehydration is an extremely common trigger for tension headaches. The human body requires a fine balance of fluids and electrolytes to function effectively..

Along with a myriad of other changes that occur during dehudration the brain temporarily  shrinks from fluid loss. This mechanism is thought to cause the brain to pull away from the skull, causing pain and resulting in a dehydration headache. Once it is rehydrated, the brain plumps up and returns to its normal state, relieving the headache. This is all quite natural.

Where things get way more complex is around the fact that some people get frequent headaches triggered by low water consumption while others only get dehydration headaches when they are severely dehydrated. People with mechanical problems deep in the muscles and bones of their neck and skull can become extremely prone to dehydration headaches so much so that they end up drinking enormous amounts to keep them at bay. 

Tension Headaches Triggered By Light

There are many ways that light can trigger headaches in tension headache sufferers. For some bright direct sunlight can be a major trigger, for others, sunlight can trigger headaches but only if there is a ‘strobe’ effect while driving in a car. Artificial lights are also a major trigger for tension headaches in many instances. Fluorescent bulbs are a headache trigger for many people, and of course the ever-present ‘screens’ have their part to play in triggering a million headaches. 

As is the case with all headache triggers it is worth considering whether you have deeper issues in your body that is causing a light sensitivity. There are nearly always friends, family, and colleagues being exposed to the same lights without being triggered into the headache zone after all.

Tension Headaches Triggered By Noise

It takes very little imagination even for those who have never had a tension headache in their life, to understand how noise could trigger headaches. Sound waves are an extremely powerful force that can even be harnessed to damage living tissue. The head is full of sensitive equipment that can easily be upset by extremely the extremely powerful sound waves we call ‘loud noises’. The type of sustained noise that music creates at concerts or through powerful speakers is a particularly effective headache trigger.

Tension Headaches Triggered By Smells

The sense of smell and the chemicals it relates to are surprisingly common triggers for headaches. As is the case with sound many of us have probably felt the beginnings of something like a headache through breathing in fumes, there are those of us however who are highly sensitive to smell. For sensitive individuals a headache can be triggered just by walking down the wrong aisle of the supermarket.

Chemical sensitivities are a complex topic for those who find themselves significantly effected by them. A good start point if you find yourself to be ‘hypersenitive’ to headaches caused by certain smells is to consider the possobility that your body might be ‘out of whack’ or missing something that it needs. The number of possibilities is endless so seeking help is usually necessary for those who want to identify the cause of their sensitivities to headache triggers. 

Tension Headaches Triggered By Foods

Foods are far more common trigger for migraines than they are tension type headaches. Specific foods can however also trigger tension headaches in a percentage of sufferers. 

The complexity of the interaction our body chemistry and our DNA in concert with the balance and wellbeing within our guts ecosystem has with all the possible foods we eat is bewildering. In scientific terms we are only now just starting to glimpse this inner world, and we’ll achieve little more than that in a lifetime of human science.

Some of us have complex reactions to foods that are hard to fathom. For all of the people in our team walnuts are a healthy brain food, we love them. We have to be careful when we eat them though because we have a particular patient who could have a near death experience just being being touched by someone who has eaten nuts. This is a glimpse into the complex world of symptoims triggered by foods. Working with people who have some knowledge of food triggers can be helpful if you suspect foods trigger your headaches.