Common causes for the most widely experienced type of headache

Headaches affect 52% of the world’s population, according to a new study, and a Maryland neurologist has tips for coping with the most common variety: tension headaches.

“Every human being can develop muscle tension,” said Dr. Ella Akkerman, a neurologist at Kaiser Permanente’s Largo and Gaithersburg locations. “The most common things that could cause muscle tension are improper posture, caffeine withdrawal and stress.”

The National Library of Medicine details good posture practices.

“How are you doing things daily? How are you holding your head when you’re looking at the computer? How are you sitting? When you look at your smartphone, where is it in relationship to your eye level?” Akkerman said.

Dr. Ella Akkerman is a neurologist at Kaiser Permanente’s Largo and Gaithersburg locations in Maryland. (Courtesy Kaiser Permanente)

She likens good screen posture for smartphones and computers to the upright stature of a ballerina.

“When you don’t have to bend your neck in any way, when you can relax your chin and look straight and the screen is at your eye level — that is the most natural and most relaxing posture and will be less likely to strain your muscles in your upper back, neck and shoulder area,” she said.

If muscle tension is inevitable in your daily routines, such as prolonged sitting in front of the computer or perhaps for long, driving commutes, then Akkerman recommends making sure you have routines to release muscle tension, including regular exercise, massage, applying heat to your shoulders and neck area, and getting plenty of rest.

Managing stress and preventing muscle tension can be easier if you’re taking good care of yourself by staying hydrated, eating nutritious regular meals and getting appropriate amounts of sleep.

“I cannot overestimate the importance of rest, resting your body, resting your brain through various activities that you enjoy and that you know will be relaxing for you,” Akkerman said.

“And if you have difficulty finding this type of relaxation, Kaiser Permanente has several apps, such as Calm and Ginger, that can help people find ways to relax and meditate and seek assistance when they need to through coaching of how to relax and how to seek stress reduction.”

Managing stress and muscle tension is helpful for routine, benign headaches, but someone should be concerned about what they’re experiencing if their headache feels different from any previously experienced, if it’s more severe than ever before or comes on suddenly versus gradually.

“Those are the red flags that you should not ignore,” Akkerman said.

It’s time to call 911 when symptoms accompanying a sudden headache include loss of vision, loss of strength, confusion or inability to speak or move in some way.

“Any type of loss of function that is sudden, and is associated with a headache, you never ignore that because it could be a stroke,” she said.

Also of concern are headaches associated with fever that could indicate a viral infection.

“The brain is the most sensitive organ in our bodies. And (the) brain is sort of a barometer for everything that happens in our bodies. Some of the most common symptoms that can come from a barometer of the body being unhappy is pain, which we feel as a headache,” Akkerman said. “So literally, anything, anything that happens in your body can potentially cause a headache, which is why it’s so common.”

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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