A tension headache is pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck, usually associated with muscle tightness in these areas.
Tension headaches are one of the most common forms of headaches. They may occur at any age, but are most common in adults and adolescents. Women are twice as likely to suffer from tension-type headaches as men.
If a headache occurs two or more times a week for several months or longer, the condition is considered chronic. Chronic daily headaches can result from the under- or over-treatment of a primary headache.
Rebound headaches are headaches that keep coming back. They may occur if you overuse painkillers.
Tension headaches occur when neck and scalp muscles become tense, or contract. The muscle contractions can be a response to stress, depression, a head injury, and anxiety.
Any activity that causes the head to be held in one position for a long time without moving can cause a headache. Such activities include typing or other computer work, fine work with the hands, and using a microscope. Sleeping in a cold room or sleeping with the neck in an abnormal position may also trigger a tension headache.
Other triggers of tension headaches include:
- Alcohol use
- Caffeine (too much or withdrawal)
- Colds, the flu, or a sinus infection
- Dental problems such as jaw clenching or teeth grinding
- Eye strain
- Excessive smoking
- Fatigue or overexertion
- Inadequate rest
- Poor posture
- Emotional or mental stress, including depression
Tension headaches are usually triggered by some type of environmental or internal stress. The most common sources of stress include family, social relationships, friends, work, and school.
Examples of stressors include:
- Having problems at home/difficult family life
- Having a new child
- Having no close friends
- Returning to school or training; preparing for tests or exams
- Going on a vacation
- Starting a new job
- Losing a job
- Being overweight
- Deadlines at work
- Competing in sports or other activities
- Being a perfectionist
- Not getting enough sleep
- Being over-extended (involved in too many activities/organizations)
Tension headaches can occur when you also have a migraine. Tension headaches are not associated with brain diseases.
The headache pain may be described as:
- Dull, pressure-like (not throbbing)
- A tight band or vise on the head
- All over (not just in one point or one side)
- Mild to moderate pain or pressure affecting the front, top or sides of the head
- Headache occurring later in the day
- Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
- Chronic fatigue
- Disturbed concentration
- Mild sensitivity to light or noise
- General muscle aching
- Worse in the scalp, temples, or back of the neck, and possibly in the shoulders
- The pain may occur as an isolated event, constantly, or daily. Pain may last for 30 minutes to 7 days. It may be triggered by or get worse with stress, fatigue, noise, or glare.
- There may be difficulty sleeping. Tension headaches usually do not cause nausea or vomiting.
- People with tension headaches tend to try to relieve pain by massaging their scalp, temples, or the bottom of the neck.