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Dr. Frasat Chaudhry, St. Luke's Hospital

Relieving tension headaches possible for busy, stressed-out women

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, and they are often described as having dull, band-like or vice-tightening sensations around the head. Often, tension headaches have associated muscle spasms and neck tenderness as well as tenderness on the scalp. They tend to begin slowly and increase in severity over time. When these headaches occur for more than 15 days, they are considered chronic.

Women are 15 percent more likely to suffer from tension-type headaches than men. Studies seem to suggest that as women take on more roles supporting their families, the resulting stress may cause tension headaches. Other factors that may play a role include anxiety, depression and sleep disorders.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found patients with tension headaches reported an average of nine days of missed work and five reduced-effective workdays a year. Those with chronic tension headaches reported an average of 27 days of missed work and 20 reduced-effective workdays. Clearly, everyone is impacted by the societal costs associated with these types of headaches.

Imaging studies and physician-patient interviews are generally used to diagnose tension headaches.

Treatment can range from simple over-the-counter medications (acetaminophen or ibuprofen) to prescription medications. A word of caution: Excessive use of pain-killing medications can worsen tension headaches and cause a chronic condition. With complicated or frequent headaches, stronger medications are often prescribed.

Stress management and muscle relaxation techniques have also been found to have a profound effect on the frequency and severity of tension headaches.

Red flags to seek immediate medical care include the sudden onset of severe headaches, daily headaches associated with the body's position or headaches that change in their characteristics. Headaches associated with fever and neck rigidity also require immediate evaluation as they could indicate possible meningitis.

Dr. Frasat Chaudhry is a board-certified neurologist at the Brain and Spine Center at St. Luke's Hospital. Call 314-878-2888 or visit her Meet the Doctor page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on December 31, 2009.