What is a tension headache?
A tension headache is a headache caused by
tense muscles in your face, neck, or scalp. It is also
sometimes called a muscle-contraction headache. Tension
headaches are very common.
How does it occur?
The muscles of your face, neck, and scalp
may become tense because of:
Headaches can also be triggered by:
having too little or too much sleep
eating too little or too much
drinking too much alcohol
being somewhere that is noisy
working hard indoors or outdoors
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms may be:
a feeling like a tight band is around
dull and steady pain that worsens
through the day, sometimes with a sore neck
pain that starts or gets worse with
stress, fatigue, noise, or glare.
Your muscles might twitch or spasm.
Sometimes your head may feel like it is throbbing.
How is it diagnosed?
Your health care provider will ask about
your symptoms and examine you. No single test can confirm
that a headache is a tension headache. The diagnosis is
based on your symptoms, medical history, and a physical
Your health care provider may ask:
When did the headache start?
How bad is it?
Where is the pain located?
What kind of pain is it? Is it sharp,
burning, or throbbing?
Do you have other symptoms, such as
nerve tingling or weakness?
Do you have a fever?
Do you feel sick or vomit?
Do you have eye pain or vision changes?
Did you have an accident or injury
before the pain started?
Did you take any drugs before the pain
Have you had other headaches like this
What stresses are you having?
Often it is hard to know if a headache is a
tension headache or a mild migraine headache.
How is it treated?
You can reduce muscle tightness and relieve
If the pain continues, your health care
provider might refer you to a physical therapist or
prescribe a stronger pain reliever.
How long will the effects last?
Symptoms usually last a few hours to a day.
How can I take care of myself?
Rest in a quiet, dark room until
symptoms lessen or go away.
Take a pain reliever such as aspirin,
acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or other medicine your health
care provider recommends or prescribes. Do this as soon
as you notice symptoms. Recognizing early warning signs
of headache and starting treatment right away is crucial
to having less pain.
Do not smoke.
Do not drink a lot of alcohol.
Massage your neck, shoulders, and back.
Put heat, an ice pack, or a cold washcloth on these
See your health care provider right away if:
The pain seems unusually severe.
You also have numbness or tingling in
your face, arms, or legs.
Your arms or legs feel weak.
You have changes in your vision that do
not go away.
What can be done to help prevent tension
Try to identify and avoid situations
that cause tension or stress. Consider getting
counseling to help you reduce the stress in your life.
Learn to use relaxation techniques.
Exercise regularly and get enough sleep.
Try not to push yourself too hard.
Eat meals regularly.
Keep your sense of humor. This reduces
For more information, call or write:
American Council for Headache Education
Mt. Royal, NJ 08061
Educational materials, referrals to support groups
National Headache Foundation
428 West St. James Place, 2nd Floor
Chicago, IL 60657
Educational materials, list of headache specialists,