Tension Headaches

Written by Valencia Higeura | Published on August 7, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is a Tension Headache?

A tension headache is the most common type of headache. This type of headache can cause mild or moderate pain in the head, neck, and behind the eyes. Some patients say that a tension headache feels like a tight band around their foreheads.

The majority of people who suffer from tension headaches have episodic headaches, which occur (on average) one or two times per month. However, tension headaches can also be chronic. Chronic headaches affect about 3 percent of the 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 are (Cleveland Clinic).

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Causes of Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are caused by muscle contractions in the head and neck. 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 long hours or driving for long periods. Cold temperatures may also trigger a tension headache in some people.

Other factors that may trigger a tension headache include:

  • drinking alcohol
  • eye strain
  • fatigue
  • smoking
  • a cold or flu
  • a sinus infection
  • caffeine
  • 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 the head. However, tension headaches do not cause all the symptoms of migraines, such as nausea and vomiting. In rare cases, a tension headache can cause sensitivity to light and noise.

How to Treat Tension Headaches

Home Care

You can take over-the-counter pain medications, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, to get rid of a tension headache.

Other tips for easing 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 muscles
  • improving your posture
  • taking frequent computer breaks to prevent eye strain

However, these techniques may not keep tension headaches from returning.

Preventing Future Headaches

Since tension headaches are often caused by specific triggers, identifying the factors that cause your headaches is one way to prevent future episodes.

A headache diary will help you determine the cause of your tension headaches. 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 in your diary. After several weeks or months, you may be able to make a connection. For example, if your diary shows that headaches occurred on days when you ate a particular food, this food may be your trigger.

Help From Your Doctor

If tension headaches begin to affect your daily life, your doctor may run tests to rule out other problems, such as a brain tumor. Tests used to check for other conditions may include:

  • CT Scan (an imaging test that uses X-rays to take pictures of your internal organs)
  • MRI (an imaging test that uses magnetic fields to examine your soft tissues)

If your doctor determines that you have tension headaches, but painkillers are not working for you, he or she may prescribe:

  • a muscle relaxant (a medication to help stop muscle contractions)
  • SSRIs or antidepressants (medications that treat depression and anxiety) to stabilize you brain’s levels of serotonin and help you cope with stress

Your doctor may also recommend other treatments, such as:

  • stress management classes to teach you techniques to cope with stress and relieve tension
  • biofeedback (a relaxation technique that teaches you to manage pain and stress)
  • cognitive behavioral therapy (talk therapy that helps you recognize situations that cause you stress, anxiety, and tension)
  • acupuncture (an alternative therapy that may reduce stress and tension by applying fine needles to specific areas of the body)

Outlook for Tension Headaches

Tension headaches often respond to treatment and rarely cause permanent damage. However, chronic tension headaches can affect your quality of life. These headaches may 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.

Also, be sure to not 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 more serious problem, such as a stroke, tumor, or an aneurysm.

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