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Tension Headaches

Tension Headaches

Topic Overview

Is this topic for you?

This topic is about tension headaches in adults. If you are looking for information about migraine headaches, see Migraine Headaches.

If you are looking for information about tension headaches in children, see Headaches in Children.

What is a tension headache?

Most headaches are tension headaches. These headaches tend to happen again and again, especially if you are under stress. They are not usually a sign of something serious. But they can be very painful and hard to live with.

Tension headaches can last from 30 minutes to 7 days.

If you have a headache on 15 or more days each month over a 3-month period, you may have chronic tension headaches. This type of headache can lead to stress and depression , which in turn can lead to more headaches.

About 4 out of every 100 people in the United States get chronic tension headaches. 1 Symptoms can start in childhood, but they are more likely to occur during middle age.

Some people have both tension headaches and migraine headaches.

What causes tension headaches?

Doctors don't know for sure what causes tension headaches. Experts once thought that tension or spasms in the muscles of the neck, face, and head played a role. Now they think that a change in brain chemicals also may be a cause.

Tension headaches are one of the most common types of headaches. They can be brought on—or triggered—by things such as stress, depression, hunger, and muscle strain. Tension headaches may come on suddenly or slowly.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of tension headaches include:

  • A headache that is constant, not throbbing. You usually feel the pain or pressure on both sides of your head.
  • Pressure that makes you feel like your head is in a vise.
  • Aching pain at your temples or the back of your head and neck.

This is different than migraine headaches, which usually cause throbbing pain and start on one side of your head.

Tension headaches tend to come back, especially when you are under stress.

Pain from a tension headache is usually not severe and does not get in the way of your work or social life. But for some people, the pain is very bad or lasts a long time.

How are tension headaches diagnosed?

A doctor can usually diagnose tension headaches by asking you questions about your health and lifestyle and by examining you.

How are they treated?

Most people can treat their tension headaches with over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or aspirin (such as Bayer).

But if you take these pain relievers more than 3 times a week, you may get rebound headaches . These are different from tension headaches. Rebound headaches usually start after pain medicine has worn off, which leads you to take another dose. After a while, you get a headache whenever you stop taking the medicine.

Your doctor may prescribe medicine if you get chronic tension headaches.

Can you prevent tension headaches?

Even with treatment, most people still have some headaches. But with treatment, you will probably have them less often. And when you do get them, they probably won't be as bad.

Home treatment may help you avoid headaches. You can:

  • Try to reduce stress.
  • Make sure you sleep, exercise, and eat on a regular schedule.
  • Make sure you practice good posture. Stand and sit up straight.
  • Try not to strain your eyes when you use your computer.
  • Get treatment for depression or anxiety if you have those health problems.
  • Try using a headache diary. Every time you get a headache, write down the date, the time, and what you were doing and feeling before your headache started. This may help you and your doctor find out what is causing your headaches. Then your doctor can use the diary to plan your treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about tension headaches:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Living with tension headaches:

Cause

The cause of tension headaches is not clear. In the past, doctors believed that tension or spasms of the muscles of the neck, face, jaw, head, or scalp played a role in causing these headaches. Now they think a change in brain chemistry may also help cause a tension headache.

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. They can be brought on—or triggered—by things such as stress, depression , hunger, and muscle strain. Tension headaches may come on suddenly or slowly.

Chronic tension headaches often occur along with other health problems such as anxiety or depression.

Symptoms

Symptoms of tension headaches include:

  • A constant headache that does not throb or pulse. You usually feel the pain or pressure on both sides of your head.
  • Tightness around your forehead that may feel like a "vise grip."
  • Aching pain at your temples or the back of your head and neck.

Unlike migraines , tension headaches usually don't occur with nausea, vomiting, or feeling sensitive to both light and noise. But light or noise could make your headache worse. Tension headaches usually aren't bad enough to keep you from doing your daily activities.

Tension headaches can last from 30 minutes to 7 days.

If you have a headache on 15 or more days each month over a 3-month period, you may have chronic tension headaches.

When to Call a Doctor

Call 911 or other emergency services if:

  • You have symptoms of a stroke, such as:
    • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
    • Sudden vision changes.
    • Sudden trouble speaking.
    • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
    • Sudden problems with walking or balance.
    • A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.

Call your doctor now or go to the emergency room if:

  • You have a fever and a stiff neck.
  • You have new nausea and vomiting, or you cannot keep food or liquids down.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your headache wakes you up at night.
  • Your headaches get worse or happen more often.
  • You start to have new symptoms.
  • You have any problems with your medicine.
  • Your headaches occur after physical exercise, sexual activity, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Your life is disrupted by your headaches (for example, you miss work or school regularly).

Watchful waiting

Watchful waiting is a wait-and-see approach. If your headache gets better on its own, you won't need treatment. If it gets worse or you get headaches often, you and your doctor will decide what to do next.

Watchful waiting and using over-the-counter pain medicines work well if your tension headaches don't keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if your headaches are disrupting your life, talk to your doctor about other treatments that you could try.

Who to see

Most health professionals can recognize and treat tension headaches. You may seek treatment from any of the following:

If you think that your headaches are caused by depression or anxiety , talk to your doctor. Treating these problems may help reduce how bad your headaches are and how often you get them.

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

Exams and Tests

Finding out the type of headache you have

A doctor can usually diagnose tension headaches by asking you questions about your health and lifestyle and by examining you.

It can be hard to know which type of headache you have, because different types can have the same symptoms. But the treatments may be different, so it's important to find out which type you have.

Finding other possible causes

In very rare cases, headaches can be caused by more serious health problems (such as brain tumors or aneurysms ). But most headaches aren't caused by anything serious, so you probably won't need to have tests.

Click here to view a Decision Point. Headaches: Should I Have Imaging Tests to Find Out What's Causing My Headaches?

Treatment Overview

You can treat most tension headaches with:

  • Over-the-counter pain medicines.
  • Prescription drugs if you have chronic or very bad headaches.
  • Avoiding things that trigger your headaches.
  • Meditation and other ways to lower your stress.

Over-the-counter medicines to stop headaches

Medicines can help you feel better. But they can also be dangerous, especially if you don't take them the right way. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.

  • Try these drugs first. Most doctors recommend that you try over-the-counter drugs first if you have mild to moderate headaches. They may have fewer side effects than prescription drugs. These medicines include:
    • Acetaminophen, such as Tylenol.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin (for example, Bayer) and ibuprofen (for example, Motrin).
    • Medicine that combines aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine, such as Excedrin.
  • Don't take this medicine too often. Try not to take over-the-counter drugs more than 3 times a week, because you may get rebound headaches . These are different from tension headaches. They are usually triggered after pain medicine has worn off, prompting you to take another dose. After a while, you get a headache whenever you stop taking the medicine.

Prescription medicines to stop headaches

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe stronger medicine if over-the-counter drugs don't stop your headaches. These medicines may include barbiturates or narcotics . But these drugs can be habit-forming, so they should be used rarely and only for a short time.

Prescription medicines to prevent headaches

You may want to try medicine to prevent a headache if:

  • You are using medicines to stop headaches more than 3 times a week.
  • Medicines to stop headaches aren't working well for you.

Your doctor may have you try one or more medicines, such as an antidepressant or a medicine that prevents seizures. These medicines can help prevent headaches even if you don't have depression or seizures.

Avoiding triggers

You may be able to prevent or reduce tension headaches by learning what causes your headaches and trying to avoid those triggers. For more information, see Living With Tension Headaches.

Reducing stress

How you think can affect how you feel. So finding ways to relax and stop negative thoughts may help prevent headaches.

You may want to try:

  • Techniques to stop negative thoughts.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Ways to manage your time.
  • Breathing exercises.
  • Guided imagery.
  • Meditation.
  • Yoga.

For more information, see Living With Tension Headaches.

Treatment if headaches get worse

If you continue to have tension headaches while you are getting treatment, you and your doctor may want to try another treatment.

You may have to try different drugs or doses. If you have already tried several medicines, your doctor may order tests (such as an MRI or CT scan) to find out if a health problem is causing your headaches.

Other things to think about

  • Even with treatment, you will most likely still get some tension headaches. But you probably will get them less often. And they may hurt less when you do get them.
  • If you also have depression or anxiety , talk to your doctor. Treatment for these health problems also may help you have fewer headaches.

Prevention

Finding and avoiding the things—or triggers—that lead to tension headaches can reduce how often you get headaches and how bad they are when you do get them.

Headache triggers can include:

  • Stress.
  • Anxiety.
  • Fatigue.
  • Hunger.

Using a headache diary (What is a PDF document?) can help you find your triggers. You write down when you have a headache and how bad it is, along with details such as what you ate and what you were doing before the headache started. This information can help you avoid things that bring on your headaches. And the diary also can help your doctor plan your treatment.

Click here to view an Actionset. Headaches: Finding and Avoiding Triggers.

If you have headaches caused by muscle tension in your neck, shoulders, and upper back, pay attention to your posture during your daily activities. You also can try muscle relaxation and other ways to reduce muscle tension.

Your doctor also may prescribe medicine to help prevent tension headaches.

Living With Tension Headaches

You may have fewer headaches—and less pain when you do get them—if you:

  • Find and avoid triggers for your headaches.
  • Keep a headache diary to find out what triggers your headaches.
  • Take over-the-counter drugs to stop a headache.
  • Take medicine as your doctor advises to stop or prevent a headache.
  • Reduce stress with relaxation and positive-thinking methods.
Click here to view an Actionset. Headaches: Managing Headaches

Find and avoid triggers

You can reduce how many headaches you have by finding out what triggers them and avoiding those things. Triggers may include stress, hunger, and lack of sleep.

Click here to view an Actionset. Headaches: Finding and Avoiding Triggers

Use a headache diary

Use a headache diary (What is a PDF document?) to find your triggers. You write down when you have a headache and how bad it is, along with details such as what you ate and what you were doing when the headache started. This information can help you avoid things that bring on your headaches. A diary also may help your doctor plan your treatment.

Take medicines as your doctor advises

If you have mild to moderate headaches, your doctor probably will want you to take over-the-counter medicines to stop your headaches. These include medicines like acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) and ibuprofen (such as Advil). Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.

If over-the-counter medicines don't stop your headaches well enough—or you get a lot of headaches—your doctor may prescribe medicine to prevent headaches.

Don't take medicine too often. Talk to your doctor if you're taking medicine more than 3 days a week to stop a headache, or if you have a headache on more than 15 days a month. Taking too much over-the-counter pain medicine can lead to more headaches. These are called rebound headaches .

Reduce stress

A man

One Man's Story:

Jerry, 32

"I hold my stress in my shoulders and neck. My shoulders are always up around my ears. A lot of times, I leave at the end of the day with a big headache."—Jerry

Read more about how Jerry reduced his stress.

Stress can cause tension headaches.

You can lower your stress with positive thinking and relaxation methods. Research shows that you can change how you think. And how you think affects how you feel. Try these techniques on your own or with help from a therapist or counselor trained in muscle relaxation, meditation, biofeedback, or cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Learn how to lower your stress with these topics:

Click here to view an Actionset. Doing Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Click here to view an Actionset. Managing Your Time
Click here to view an Actionset. Reducing Stress by Being Assertive
Click here to view an Actionset. Breathing Exercises for Relaxation
Click here to view an Actionset. Doing Guided Imagery to Relax
Click here to view an Actionset. Doing Meditation
Click here to view an Actionset. Practicing Yoga to Relax

You also can learn to stop thinking all the time about things that bother you.

Click here to view an Actionset. Stop Negative Thoughts: Getting Started

Seek help if you think that your tension headaches may be linked to depression or anxiety . Treating these health problems can reduce how often you get headaches.

Medications

Your doctor may recommend medicine to treat or prevent tension headaches.

You might only need to take an over-the-counter medicine for pain. These medicines usually have fewer side effects than prescription drugs. Always be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.

Over-the-counter drugs to stop headaches

Over-the-counter medicines that you can use to stop a headache include:

  • Acetaminophen (such as Tylenol).
  • Aspirin (such as Bayer).
  • Ibuprofen (such as Advil).
  • Naproxen (such as Aleve).
  • Medicine that combines aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine (such as Excedrin).

Try to avoid taking over-the-counter drugs more than 3 times a week, because you may get rebound headaches . These are different from tension headaches. They usually occur after headache medicine has worn off. This leads you to take another dose. After a while, you get a headache whenever you stop taking the medicine.

Prescription drugs to stop headaches

In some cases your doctor may prescribe a medicine such as a barbiturate or narcotic to stop a headache if nonprescription medicines don't work. But these drugs can be habit-forming and should be used rarely and only for a short time.

Prescription drugs to prevent headaches

Your doctor may recommend that you take a prescription medicine every day to prevent headaches. You may want to take this medicine if:

  • Over-the-counter medicines don't work to stop your headaches.
  • You're taking drugs to stop headaches more than 3 times a week.
  • You get a headache more than 15 days a month.

Medicines used to prevent tension headaches include:

Click here to view a Decision Point. Headaches: Should I Take Prescription Medicine for Tension Headaches?

Botulinum toxin type A (BTX-A) is sometimes injected into the muscles in the face and head to treat headaches. In the past, doctors thought that spasms caused tension headaches. But BTX-A injections do not seem to help with symptoms of tension headaches. 1, 2 And BTX-A may cause weakness of the facial muscles and may make it hard for you to swallow.

What to think about

  • The type of tension headache you have may help your doctor decide which drug to prescribe.
  • There are other things you can try besides daily medicine. For example, you could use cognitive-behavioral therapy or biofeedback .
  • The medicine that you take may cause side effects. Some side effects may last for a few weeks or for as long as you take the medicine.
  • You may have to try several different drugs or types of drugs before you find the one that is right for you. Make sure to tell your doctor how well a drug stops your headaches.
  • Certain pain medicines can cause a bad reaction if you take them with other medicines. Before you begin taking pain medicines, be sure to let your doctor know about all of the drugs you take. This includes over-the-counter medicines and complementary treatments (such as herbs).

Other Treatment

Using other treatments along with medicines may help you stop a tension headache or prevent one.

If you decide to try one or more of these treatments, make sure your doctor knows. He or she may have advice on how to use other treatments safely. Other treatments for headaches include:

Other Places To Get Help

Organization

National Headache Foundation (NHF) (U.S.)
Web Address: www.headaches.org

References

Citations

  1. Krishnan A, Silver N (2009). Headache (chronic tension type), search date March 2007. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
  2. Naumann M, et al. (2008). Assessment: Botulinum neurotoxin in the treatment of autonomic disorders and pain (an evidence-based review): Report of the Therapeutics and Technology Assessment Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology, 70(19): 1707–1714.
  3. Linde K, et al. (2009). Acupuncture for tension-type headache. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).

Other Works Consulted

  • Ropper AH, Samuels MA (2009). Headache and other craniofacial pains. In Adams and Victor's Principles of Neurology, 9th ed., pp. 162–188. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Karin M. Lindholm, DO - Neurology
Current as of May 2, 2014

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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