Humans and Health

Healthy Impact: Headaches

5 years ago I graduated from UoN and began working in the NHS as a junior doctor. Now I’m back at the Uni, this time as a postgrad studying Medical Education, while working as a GP in a local practice. For this article in my new Healthy Impact series i’m going to talk headache prevention; as headaches are in fact one of the 10 most common reasons for seeing your doctor.

Headaches come in different forms and Doctors like to categorise them as either ‘dangerous’ or ‘harmless’. Dangerous headaches are serious and life-threatening conditions. Thankfully, dangerous headaches are much less common than the harmless, albeit frustrating, ones. By ‘harmless’, doctors mean the headache isn’t a danger to life. Of course, this doesn’t mean they’re pleasant things that we enjoy having. Some harmless headaches can severely damage quality of life without being a direct threat to the life itself. Examples of harmless headaches that patients often see me about are migraine, cluster headache and tension headache.

“About 3 in every 100 people in the UK experience [chronic tension headaches] and a lot more have recurrent tension headaches but on a less frequent basis.”

Tension headache is the most common headache, affecting up to 80% of people at least once in their life. Each episode of tension headache can last from 30 minutes up to a whole week. They’re moderately painful, tightening headaches across both sides of the head. They don’t cause vomiting, aren’t made worse by physical activity and aren’t intensified by bright light or loud noises.

This distinguishes them from migraine, which is an entirely different diagnosis that we treat in a very different way. ‘Chronic’ is a word often misused. In the medical world, something is chronic if it’s been going on for a long time. Tension headache is deemed chronic if it occurs on 15 days a month or more. About 3 in every 100 people in the UK experience this and a lot more have recurrent tension headaches but on a less frequent basis.

So, what causes tension headache?

Unfortunately, the truth is we simply don’t know the cause, at least not on a physiological level. We do however, know something for sure – that tension headache is often triggered by lifestyle. In the student population, the biggest culprits include the stress of studying, partying too hard and the emotional distress of being away from home. If you’re suffering from tension headache on an annoyingly frequent basis, I have good news – these tips aim to reduce the chance of the headache happening in the first place.

Tips to prevent tension headache

Regular mealtimes

Avoiding dramatic peaks and troughs in blood sugar can help. Eating regular, small meals is one way to do this. Remember to include a daily breakfast rich in complex carbohydrates each morning (porridge is my favourite). For some unfortunate people, chocolate is a strong trigger for tension headache, and those should avoid chocolate as much as possible. Unlucky.

Adequate hydration

60% of our body weight comes from water, so it’s extremely important to remain hydrated. About 30% of our fluid intake comes from the food we eat, but the rest – about 3 pints for women and 4 pints for men – has to be drank. Caffeinated drinks don’t count. In fact, intensely concentrated caffeinated drinks, like Red Bull and espresso shots cause a net loss of fluid. Remember, alcohol doesn’t count either and also has a strong diuretic effect on the body, which quickly leads to dehydration. Physical activity, hot and humid environments and any bouts of vomiting or diarrhoea mean we need to take even more fluid on board. If you’re dehydrated, expect a tension headache.

A regular sleep pattern

The exact number of snoozing hours needed to achieve restorative sleep varies widely between individuals, but is generally around 6-8. Disrupted sleep, not enough Z’s, or sleeping during the day can all lead to tension headache. Simple sleep hygiene, such as creating a quiet, cool and dark sleeping environment, promotes healthy shut-eye. It’s important to avoid drinking caffeine and eating heavy meals in the hours before bedtime, and so is sticking to an agreed bedtime and get-up time. The big one for me is using digital screens before bed. Staring at a brightly lit tablet or smartphone tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime, causing a surge in the stress hormone cortisol, which makes sleep physiologically impossible. Put your iPhone away 1 hour before bed, and tell your brain its sleep time.


The list of benefits that exercise brings to our physical, mental and emotional health is endless. The prevention of tension headache features prominently on that list. Exercise also promotes regular sleep patterns, which nicely links in to the previous tip.

 Relaxation techniques

Meditation, deep-breathing and mindfulness are simple methods that can be done at home without any specialist equipment or training. Devoting 10 minutes each day to care for your mind switches the body into a relaxation state which brings with it countless benefits, including the prevention of tension headache.

Richard Armitage 

Feature Image courtesy of Hamza Butt via Flickr. License here

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