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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.

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:

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