What is a tension headache?
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. Some people say that a tension headache feels like a tight band around their forehead.
Most people who experience tension headaches have episodic headaches. These 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 as men to have tension headaches.
Causes of tension headaches
Tension headaches are caused by muscle contractions in the head and neck regions.
These types of contractions can be caused by a variety of
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 of tension headaches include:
- eye strain
- dry eyes
- a cold or flu
- a sinus infection
- poor posture
- emotional stress
- decreased water intake
- lack of sleep
- skipping meals
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. This is a type of headache that causes throbbing pain on one or both sides of your head.
However, tension headaches don’t have all the symptoms of migraines, such as nausea and vomiting. In rare cases, a tension headache can lead to sensitivity to light and loud noise, similar to migraines.
In severe cases, your healthcare provider 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. Your healthcare provider may also use an MRI, which allows them to examine your soft tissues.
How to treat a tension headache
Medications and home care
You can start by drinking more water. You may be dehydrated and need to increase your water intake. Also, you should consider how much sleep you’re getting. Lack of sleep can lead to tension headaches. And make sure you didn’t skip any meals, which can trigger headaches.
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.
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 healthcare provider 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.
Your healthcare provider 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 treatments, 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 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 your healthcare provider first.
According to the
The following may also ease a tension headache:
- Apply a heating pad or ice pack to your head for 5 to 10 minutes several times a day.
- Take a hot bath or shower to relax tense muscles.
- Improve your posture.
- Take frequent computer breaks to prevent eye strain.
However, these techniques may not keep all tension headaches from returning.
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 episodes.
A headache diary can help you determine the cause of your tension headaches.
- daily meals
- 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.
Outlook for people with 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 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 healthcare provider.
It’s important 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
- high fever
This can indicate a much more serious problem, such as: