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Migraine Triggers: Tension-Type Headaches

Do you ever have a headache that “turns into a Migraine?” If so, it may be a tension-type headache. Tension-type headaches can be a Migraine trigger for some people.

Tension-type headaches (TTH) commonly last from 30 minutes to seven days. The pain of TTH is often described as “vise-like” or “a band around the head.”

A TTH has at least two of these four characteristics:

  • mild to moderate in intensity
  • occurs on both sides of the head (bilateral)
  • is not made worse by routine activity such as bending over or climbing stairs
  • the pain has a pressing or tightening quality, not throbbing or pulsing

For many, stopping a TTH early can keep it from triggering a Migraine attack. Acute treatment options for TTH include:

  • aspirin (for adults)
  • acetaminophen
  • ibuprofen
  • aspirin/acetaminophen/caffeine combinations
  • muscle relaxants
  • combination prescription medications with codeine, hydrocodone, butalbital, caffeine, etc.
  • massage therapy
  • biofeedback
  • acupuncture
  • relaxation exercises
  • transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) (should never be applied to the face or head)

Migraine abortive medications do not relieve TTH.

My personal experience is that tension-type headaches most often do trigger a Migraine for me unless I stop them quickly. I frequently feel them first in the bottom of the back of my head. Ibuprofen usually works for them, but because of other medications I take, I shouldn’t take ibuprofen. I have found that a TENS unit applied to my shoulders and lower neck is as effective as medication for stopping a TTH if I use it early in the headache.

If you have headaches that “turn into Migraines,” it’s worth discussing them with your doctor. It may turn out that they’re tension-type headaches, and you can discuss ways to stop them quickly before they trigger a Migraine.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

"The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 2nd Edition." Cephalalgia 24 (s1). doi: 10.1111/j. 1468-2982.2003.00824.x - Young, William B., MD; Silberstein, Stephen D., MD. "Migraine and Other Headaches." New York: AAN Press. 2004.

Comments

  • Maria Jessa Urbina
    7 years ago

    kung may migranes kah nag susokah kavah.

  • Jonna Juario Labeta
    7 years ago

    Hahahha hi best hahahah verry easy cut ur head louya sako enday oi muzta mingaw nko sa imo

  • Lindsey Melnyk
    7 years ago

    my cousin and I suffer horribly from migraines and tth all the time, meds don’t seem to work too well for either of us, so we kinda went for a completely different approach. we both had breast reductions. at 16 years old I was a size 38 f cup, and after getting it medically cleared by my mom’s insurance I had it done. they took out almost 6 pounds on me, and immediately after I noticed the results. I still have tth that turns into migraine, but just not as often I would have to say. now if I could get some control over the bad migraines, I’d be a happy camper! the best 100.00 $ my mom ever spent on me….although back during that year 2000, it WOULD”VE cost her 26,000$, still she would’ve paid it all, just to help me get through this! I am so very thankful for my mom….i’ve put her through sooo much with having this disease that I literally bankrupted her, but she tells me she would do it all over again if she had too. I am so blessed to have her!

  • Julie Bélisle
    7 years ago

    This is my ONLY migraine trigger. I have these headaches 6 days a week. The only day I don’t have them is the day after I took triptans or DHE for migraines (I have migraine about every 7 days, sometimes 6). Nothing works anymore with these headaches, because I’ve been having them almost everyday for more than 10 years. I’ve been addicted to triptans, I’ve took everything I could to make the pain stop. Before I took a beta-blocker, I had migraines every 3 days. What helps me the most, beside the beta-blocker, is too sleep enough, have osteopathy treatments (I have skull pain), and be sure to eat enough, because my pain usually gets worse just before dinner.

  • Craig Cooper
    8 years ago

    Great site

  • Migraine.com
    8 years ago

    Thanks!

  • Amy Hines Narron
    8 years ago

    I was getting tension triggered migraine attacks for YEARS with barely a break in the cycle. When PT and TENS stopped being useful, I went extreme and had nerves dissolved in my neck. When I get stressed the tension goes right to my neck and shoulders (upper trap). Killing the nerves keeps me from getting even more tense from the pain, and therefore keeps the migraine at bay. Ever since I had it done, I almost never get a tension triggered migraine. I still have to do stretching exercises on a regular basis, but it’s become routine and I can do them anywhere. Now if I could just get the weather and my hormones to cooperate…

    FYI: here’s a link to the procedure I had done. It seriously changed my life. I have more non-headache days now than I’ve ever had before. http://www.myspinedoctors.com/services.aspx?srv=median_branch_neurotomy

  • Joan Lewter
    8 years ago

    I HAVE TRIED THE TENS UNIT WITH NO HELP BUT IT MIGHT HELP SOME ONE ELSE. I TRY TO LET PEOPLE KNOW WHAT I HAVE LEARNED FROM MY TREATMENTS THEN LET THEM DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES WHAT MIGHT HELP THE MOST. I AM GLAD I HAVE A PLACE WHERE THERE ARE PEOPLE HAVE MIGRAINES TOO. AT FIRST I THOUGHT I WAS CRAZY BUT AS TIME WENT ON AN I LEARNED MORE AND MORE I NOW REALIZE I AM NOT CRAZY. BUT I STILL WANT TO BEAT MY HEAD AGAINST THE WALL SOME TIMES IF I KNEW IT WOULD HELP.

  • Janet
    6 years ago

    Don’t beat your head against the wall….while it helps for a split second…and only that split second..if you slam your head the wrong way…it will be the last time you do anything. Being in the kind of pain we suffer from it’s so hard to make anyone in an ER understand that you can’t wait 4 hours for help….it is so helpful to have this website and read others’ stories and input on what medications, treatments…foods, vitamins…I’ve learned a lot here…sadly for me …the migraines have turned chronic for the last 13 years. I have had a break of 2-3 days where the pain level is manageable for me…like a 4….but I haven’t had a zero in 37 years 🙁

    I pray for all of us…and thankful and grateful that someone just may share the one thing that just might help me.

    Blessings
    Janet

  • Jane Carty MacNealy
    8 years ago

    This is very interesting. Occasionally I do get a headache that is a band of tightness around my head but it does turn into a migraine. I end up taking my migraine meds and it goes away. I am curious about the TENS unit – isn’t that what they use at PT for electric stim? How do you get one.

  • Jane Carty MacNealy
    8 years ago

    I know what you mean about being a happy camper when something simple takes care of the headache. Glad it works for you.

  • Teri Robert
    8 years ago

    You’re welcome, Jane. Now that PT is over, I use the TENS unit when I feel the beginning of a tension-type headache. Many times, it will stop the headache with no meds, which is great for me. Acetaminophen does nothing for me. Advil does, but I can’t take it because of a prescription arthritis med I take. Anytime I can get rid of a headache with no meds, I’m a happy camper.

  • Jane Carty MacNealy
    8 years ago

    Thanks for the info Teri. Do you use it on a regular basis or do you just use it when you feel a tension headache coming on? I will ask my headache doc about it.

  • Teri Robert
    8 years ago

    Jane, yes, TENS units are often used in PT. That’s actually how I got mine. I was doing PT following shoulder surgery. The physical therapist mentioned that it could be used on shoulders and neck for tension-type headaches, but couldn’t show me how to use it for that because that’s not what he was treating me for. My Migraine and headache specialist was glad to show me. I got mine with a prescription from my surgeon, and my insurance company paid for it. Check with your doctor.

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