Tension Headache

Tension Headache
Tension Headache


A tension headache is the most common form of headache that people experience, and it involves pain or discomfort in the head, neck, or scalp. This type of headache is typically associated with or caused by muscle tightness in these areas. Also, this type of headache is considered benign, which means harmless.

Commonly Associated With

Episodic tension-type headache, tension-type headache, chronic tension headaches, benign headache, muscle contraction headache, and rebound tension headaches

Causes Of Tension Headaches

Tension headaches tend to occur when the person’s neck and scalp muscles become contracted or tense for long periods of time. These muscle contractions can result from stress, a head injury, anxiety, or depression.

These headaches can occur at any age, but are most often seen in older teens and adults. Also, they’re slightly more common in women and often run in families.

These types of headaches often result from holding the head in one position for too long without moving. Activities that can cause this include computer work, using a microscope, typing, and detailed work involving a person’s hands.

Also, sleeping with the neck in an abnormal position often triggers tension headaches.

Other possible triggers for these types of headaches can include:

  • Fatigue or overexertion
  • Alcohol use
  • Eye strain
  • Dehydration
  • Excessive smoking
  • Dental problems such as grinding of the teeth and clenching of the jaw
  • Physical or emotional stress
  • Caffeine (either too much or withdrawal from stopping use)
  • Colds, sinus infections, or influenza
  • Migraines

It’s important to note that tension headaches are not dangerous to the person, and are not associated with any particular brain diseases or problems.

Symptoms Of Tension Headaches

Tension headache symptoms often include:

  • Dull pain, with feelings of pressure (not a throbbing pain)
  • Evenly distributed pain (not just at one point or one side of the head)
  • Pain that feels like a vise or tight band on or around the person’s head
  • The pain is typically strongest in the scalp area, the temples, or the back of their neck (and possibly their shoulders)
  • The headache will vary in how often it occurs, from once per day to constantly every day. Pain typically lasts from 30 minutes to 7 days. These headaches are often triggered by or worsened due to fatigue, stress, visual glare, or noise
  • The person may also experience difficulty sleeping
  • Tension headaches usually do not cause nausea or vomiting, so if these symptoms occur the person should be concerned and seek medical attention

Exams & Tests

Most tension headaches are mild to moderate and will typically disappear in a few hours. These headaches do not need examination or testing, and are not dangerous.

Treatment Of Tension Headaches

Treatment of tension headaches vary. One important step for those with repeated headaches is to try and figure out what triggers them, and to then try and avoid those triggers, usually through lifestyle changes.

Common helpful medications for this condition include:

  • Muscle relaxers
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen
  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • However, patients shouldn’t use narcotic pain relievers for these headaches

When taking these medications, people should be aware that:

  • Taking medications more than 3 days a week can lead to rebound headaches, which are headaches that return repeatedly due to the person overusing pain medication  
  • Taking too much acetaminophen can damage their liver
  • Too much aspirin or ibuprofen can irritate the person’s stomach or damage their kidneys

Other possible treatment ideas (that require discussion with a health care provider first) include massages, acupuncture, relaxation or stress-management training, biofeedback treatments, and cognitive behavioral therapy.