A tension headache is generally a diffuse, mild to moderate pain in your head that's often described as feeling like a tight band around your head. A tension headache (tension-type headache) is the most common type of headache, and yet its causes aren't well understood.
Treatments for tension headaches are available. Managing a tension headache is often a balance between fostering healthy habits, finding effective nondrug treatments and using medications appropriately.
Signs and symptoms of a tension headache include:
Tension headaches are divided into two main categories — episodic and chronic.
Episodic tension headaches
Chronic tension headaches
Tension headaches vs. migraines
Unlike some forms of migraine, tension headache usually isn't associated with visual disturbances, nausea or vomiting. Although physical activity typically aggravates migraine pain, it doesn't make tension headache pain worse. An increased sensitivity to either light or sound can occur with a tension headache, but these aren't common symptoms.
When to see a doctor
If tension headache disrupts your life or you need to take medication for your headaches more than twice a week, see your doctor.
Even if you have a history of headaches, see your doctor if the pattern changes or your headaches suddenly feel different. Occasionally, headaches may indicate a serious medical condition, such as a brain tumor or rupture of a weakened blood vessel (aneurysm).
When to seek emergency help
The cause of tension headache is not known. Experts used to think tension headaches stemmed from muscle contractions in the face, neck and scalp, perhaps as a result of heightened emotions, tension or stress. But research suggests muscle contractions aren't the cause.
The most common theories support a heightened sensitivity to pain in people who have tension headaches and possibly a heightened sensitivity to stress. Increased muscle tenderness, a common symptom of tension headache, may result from a sensitized pain system.
Risk factors for tension headache include:
Because tension headaches are so common, their effect on job productivity and overall quality of life is considerable, particularly if they're chronic. The frequent pain may render you unable to attend activities. You might need to stay home from work, or if you do go to your job, your ability to function is impaired.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor. You then may be referred to a doctor who specializes in treating nervous system disorders, such as headache (neurologist).
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and to know what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
For tension headaches, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions, as well.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Keep a headache diary. To gather information about your headaches that will help your doctor, keep a headache diary. For each headache, jot down:
Tests and diagnosis
If you have chronic or recurrent headaches, your doctor may conduct physical and neurological exams, then try to pinpoint the type and cause of your headaches using these approaches:
Your pain description
Treatments and drugs
Some people with tension headaches don't seek medical attention and try to treat the pain on their own. Unfortunately, repeated use of over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers can actually cause overuse headaches.
A variety of medications, both OTC and prescription, are available to reduce the pain of a headache, including:
Preventive medications may include:
Preventive medications may require several weeks or more to build up in your system before they take effect. So don't get frustrated if you haven't seen improvements shortly after you begin taking the drug.
Your doctor will monitor your treatment to see how the preventive medication is working. In the meantime, overuse of pain relievers for your headaches may interfere with the effects of the preventive drugs.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Rest, ice packs or a long, hot shower may be all you need to relieve a tension headache. A variety of strategies can help reduce the severity and frequency of chronic tension headaches without using medicine. Try some of the following:
The following nontraditional therapies may help if you have tension headache pain:
Coping and support
Living with chronic pain can be difficult. Chronic pain can make you anxious or depressed and affect your relationships, your productivity and the quality of your life.
Here are some suggestions:
In addition to regular exercise, techniques such as biofeedback training and relaxation therapy can help reduce stress.
Using medications in conjunction with stress management techniques may be more effective than is either treatment alone in reducing your tension headaches.
Additionally, living a healthy lifestyle may help prevent headaches:
Last Updated: 2013-07-16
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