What is a tension headache?
A tension headache is the most common type of headache. It can
cause mild, moderate, or intense pain in your head, neck, and behind your eyes.
Some patients say that a tension headache feels like a tight band around their
The majority of people who suffer from tension headaches have
episodic headaches, which occur one or two times per month on average. However,
tension headaches can also be chronic. According to the Cleveland
Clinic, chronic headaches affect about 3 percent of the U.S. population and
include headache episodes that last for more than 15 days per month. Women are
twice as likely to suffer from tension headaches as men.
Causes of tension headaches
Tension headaches are caused by muscle contractions in the head
and neck regions. A variety of foods, activities, and stressors can cause these
types of contractions. Some people develop tension headaches after staring at a
computer screen for a long time or after driving for long periods. Cold
temperatures may also trigger a tension headache.
Other triggers for tension headaches include:
- eye strain
- dry eyes
- a cold or flu
- a sinus infection
- poor posture
- emotional stress
Symptoms of a tension headache
Symptoms of a tension headache include:
- dull head pain
- pressure around the forehead
- tenderness around the forehead and scalp
The pain is usually mild or moderate, but it can also be intense.
In this case, you might confuse your tension headache with a migraine, which is
a type of headache that causes throbbing pain on one or both sides of your
head. However, tension headaches don’t cause all the symptoms of migraines,
such as nausea and vomiting. In rare cases, a tension headache can cause sensitivity to light
and loud noise, similar to migraines.
In severe cases, your doctor may run tests to rule out other
problems, such as a brain tumor. Tests used to check for other conditions may
include a CT scan, which uses X-rays to take pictures of your internal organs
and an MRI, which can help your doctor examine your soft tissues.
How to treat a tension headache
Medications and home care
You can take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as
ibuprofen or aspirin, to get rid of a tension headache. However, these should
only be used occasionally. According to the Mayo
Clinic, using OTC medications too much may lead to “overuse” or ”rebound”
headaches. These types of headaches occur when you become so accustomed to a
medication that you experience pain when the drugs wear off.
OTC drugs are sometimes not enough to treat recurring tension
headaches. In such cases, your doctor may give you a prescription for
medication, such as:
- prescription-strength acetaminophen
If painkillers are not working, your doctor may prescribe a
muscle relaxant, which is a medication that helps stop muscle contractions.
Your doctor may also prescribe an antidepressant such as a selective serotonin
reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). SSRIs can stabilize your brain’s levels of serotonin
and can help you cope with stress.
Your doctor may also recommend other treatments, such as:
- stress management classes to teach you ways to
cope with stress and how to relieve tension
- biofeedback, which is a relaxation technique
that teaches you to manage pain and stress
- cognitive behavioral therapy, which is talk
therapy that helps you recognize situations that cause you stress, anxiety, and
- acupuncture, which is an alternative therapy
that may reduce stress and tension by applying fine needles to specific areas
of your body
Some supplements may also help relieve tension headaches.
However, since alternative remedies can interact with conventional medications,
you should always discuss these with a doctor first.
According to the National Center for
Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the following supplements may
help prevent tension headaches:
- coenzyme Q10
- riboflavin (vitamin B-2)
Other ways to ease a tension headache include:
- applying a heating pad or ice pack to your head
for five to 10 minutes several times a day
- taking a hot bath or shower to relax tense
- improving your posture
- taking frequent computer breaks to prevent eye
However, these techniques may not keep all tension headaches from
Preventing future tension headaches
Since tension headaches are often caused by specific triggers,
identifying the factors that cause your headaches is one way to prevent future
A headache diary will help you determine the cause of your
tension headaches. You can keep a record of your daily meals, beverages, and
activities, as well as any situations that trigger stress. For each day that
you have a tension headache, make a note of it. After several weeks or months,
you may be able to make a connection. For example, if your journal shows that
headaches occurred on days when you ate a particular food, this food may be
Outlook for tension headaches
Tension headaches often respond to treatment and rarely cause any
permanent neurological damage. Still, chronic tension headaches can affect your
quality of life. These headaches can also make it difficult for you to
participate in physical activities. You may also miss days of work or school.
If it becomes a serious problem, talk to your doctor.
It’s important not to ignore severe symptoms. Seek medical attention
immediately if you have a headache that starts suddenly or a headache
accompanied by slurred speech, loss of balance, or a high fever. This can
indicate a much more serious problem, such as a stroke, tumor, or an aneurysm.