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A tension headache is the most common type of headache. It can cause mild, moderate, or intense pain behind your eyes and in your head and neck.

A tension headache can feel like a tight band around your forehead.

Most people who experience tension headaches have episodic headaches that occur one or two times per month on average. However, tension headaches can also be chronic.

Doctors and medical researchers don’t know what exactly causes tension headaches. Tension headaches may sometimes be linked to muscle tension in the head and neck, or to poor posture.

Research suggests that infrequent tension headaches may be caused by the activation of hyperexcitable peripheral afferent neurons. These are specialized neurons, or nerve cells, that relay sensory information from pain receptors in the body to the brain.

If you get tension-type headaches, you may have abnormalities in your central pain processing. It’s also possible that you may generally have an increased sensitivity to pain.

Someone’s susceptibility to tension headaches is believed to be influenced by genetic factors.

Triggers of tension headaches include:

Symptoms of a tension headache include:

  • dull head pain
  • pressure around your forehead
  • tenderness around your forehead and scalp
  • difficulty focusing
  • irritability or fatigue
  • no nausea or vomiting with the above symptoms

The pain will usually be mild or moderate.

In cases of intense pain, you might confuse your tension headache with migraine. This is a type of headache that causes throbbing pain on one or both sides of your head. Migraines are moderate to severe in intensity, while tension headaches are mild to moderate. Migraines can also be worsened by physical activity, while tension headaches cannot.

Tension headaches don’t have all the symptoms of migraine attacks, such as nausea and vomiting. In rare cases, your tension headache can lead you to be sensitive to light and loud noises, similar to migraine attacks.

In severe cases, a healthcare professional 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. A healthcare professional may also use MRI, which allows them to examine your soft tissues.

Medications and home care

You can start by drinking more water. You may be dehydrated and need to increase your water intake.

Hunger and lack of sleep are two common triggers for tension headaches. If you are experiencing a tension headache, check in with yourself about when you last ate and slept. A snack or a nap can help turn things around if your body needs it.

If none of those strategies work, then 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.

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 it wears off.

OTC drugs are sometimes not enough to treat recurring tension headaches. In such cases, a healthcare professional may give you a prescription for medication, such as:

If pain relievers aren’t working, they may prescribe a muscle relaxant. This is a medication that helps stop muscle contractions.

A healthcare professional 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.

They may also recommend other strategies, such as:

  • Stress management classes. These classes can teach you ways to cope with stress and how to relieve tension.
  • Biofeedback. This is a relaxation technique that teaches you to manage pain and stress.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is talk therapy that helps you recognize situations that cause you stress, anxiety, and tension.
  • Acupuncture. This is an alternative therapy that may lower your stress and tension by applying fine needles to specific areas of your body.

The following may also ease your tension headache:

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

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 can help you determine the cause of your tension headaches.

Record your:

  • daily meals
  • beverages
  • activities
  • 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, that food may be your trigger.

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 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 with a healthcare professional.

It’s important to not ignore severe symptoms. Get medical attention immediately if you have a headache that starts suddenly or a headache accompanied by:

This can indicate a much more serious problem, such as: