What is a tension headache?

A tension headache is the most common kind of headaches. Tension headaches cause aching, tightness, pressure, and pain around the forehead, temples, or back of the head and neck. They tend to happen again and again, especially if you are under stress. They aren't usually a sign of anything serious.

Some people have chronic tension headaches, which means they have a headache on 15 or more days a month. This type of headache can lead to stress and depression, which in turn can lead to more headaches.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headaches that affect people, typically in the age group of 20- to 50-year-olds. They can be broken down into "episodic" or "chronic." Episodic headaches usually are intermittent, associated with a stressful life even and typically relieved with over-the-counter remedies such as Tylenol. Chronic headaches typically recur daily, are associated with tenderness and tightness of the muscles of the neck and scalp, and hurt on both sides and the front of the head.
Tension-type headache, previously called muscle contraction headache, is the most common type of headache. Its name indicates the role of stress and mental or emotional conflict in triggering the pain and contracting muscles in the neck, face, scalp, and the jaw. Tension-type headaches may also be caused by jaw clenching, intense work, missed meals, depression, anxiety, or too little sleep. Sleep apnea may also cause tension-type headaches, especially in the morning. People who suffer tension-type headaches may also feel overly sensitive to light and sound but there is no preheadache aura as with migraine. Tension-type headaches usually disappear once the period of stress or related cause has ended.

Tension-type headaches affect women slightly more often than men. The headaches usually begin in adolescence and reach peak activity in the 30s. They have not been linked to hormones and do not have a strong hereditary connection.
There are two forms of tension-type headache, episodic tension-type headaches and chronic tension-type headaches. Episodic tension-type headache occur between 10 and 15 days per month, with each attack lasting from 30 minutes to several days. Chronic tension-type attacks usually occur more than 15 days per month over a 3-month period. The pain, which can be constant over a period of days or months, strikes both sides of the head and is more severe and disabling than episodic headache pain.

Depression and anxiety can cause tension-type headaches. Headaches may occur in the early morning or evening, when conflicts in the office or at home are anticipated. Other causes include physical postures that strain head and neck muscles (such as holding your chin down while reading or holding a phone between your shoulder and ear), degenerative arthritis of the neck, and temporomandibular joint dysfunction (a disorder of the joints between the temporal bone located above the ear and the mandible or lower jaw bone).

A physician may suggest using analgesics, nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs or antidepressants to treat a tension-type headache that is not associated with a disease. Triptan drugs, barbiturates (drugs that have a relaxing or sedative effect), and ergot derivatives may provide relief to people who suffer from both migraine and tension-type headache.

This answer is based on source information from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Tension headaches (also called muscle contraction headaches) are the most common type of headaches and happen when the muscles of the neck tighten, causing pain. Tension headaches are common in times of stress or when you’re overtired.  Chronic tension headaches average more than 15 days each month for more than six months. While both men and women get tension headaches, women are at higher risk.
Tension headache is the most common type of headache, affecting most people at some point in their lives. Although most people have them only rarely, a small percentage suffers from tension headaches on a more regular basis. These headaches usually develop in the late afternoon, causing mild or moderate pain. However, people with a lesser-known type of tension headache caused by temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders may experience morning headaches. The pain may envelop your entire head or be limited to the forehead or to the back or top of your head. Many people describe the sensation as a dull tightness or pressure that occurs in a band-like pattern. The intensity of the pain may fluctuate, but it won't be intense enough to keep you from functioning or sleeping or to awaken you at night.
Michael T. Murray, ND
Naturopathic Medicine

The two most common types of headache are tension and migraine. Tension headaches usually have a steady, constant, dull pain.

Encyclopedia of Healing Foods

More About this Book

Encyclopedia of Healing Foods

From the bestselling authors of The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, the most comprehensive and practical guide available to the nutritional benefits and medicinal properties of virtually everything...
Jacob Teitelbaum
Integrative Medicine
Tension headaches account for about three-quarters of all headaches. The result of muscle tightness, they tend to start and fade away gradually. When coming from the neck muscles, they cause moderate pain on both sides of, and across, the forehead. Occasionally, tension headaches from the muscles at the base of the skull are felt on the back and top of the head, or behind the eyes.
Beat Sugar Addiction Now!: The Cutting-Edge Program That Cures Your Type of Sugar Addiction and Puts You on the Road to Feeling Great - and Losing Weight!

More About this Book

Beat Sugar Addiction Now!: The Cutting-Edge Program That Cures Your Type of Sugar Addiction and Puts You on the Road to Feeling Great - and Losing Weight!

The No-Fail Plan to Beating Sugar Addiction! With one-third of our calories coming from sugar and white flour added to processed foods, sugar addiction is a rapidly growing epidemic. However, unlike...
Tension headaches squeeze your head like a stress ball, making it difficult to focus and often affecting your mood, as well. After several hours, and perhaps some medication, the headache finally subsides.

About 90 percent of Americans experience a tension headache during their lifetime.

These headaches generally feel like the head is being squeezed in a vise, or as if pressure is being applied uniformly around the head. They can last anywhere from 4 to 72 hours.

Episodic tension headaches come and go sporadically. Chronic tension headaches occur regularly, for weeks or months at a time.
Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache; about 3 in 4 adults experience these headaches. More women than men have tension-type headaches. The identifying characteristics of these headaches include mild-to-moderate, steady, pressing pain, and pain emanating from both sides of the head. The pain may last from a few hours to several days and is usually treated by self-care approaches or nonprescription (over-the-counter) medications, such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), or ibuprofen (Advil).
Tension headaches are actually the most common cause of recurring headaches, but are never severe and therefore these individuals rarely seek medical care for tension headaches. They generally involve both sides of the head and are often described as a “tight band around the head.” The symptoms of significant light and sound sensitivity, nausea and vomiting, are not seen with tension headaches. Simple over the counter medications suffice to treat episodic attacks of tension headache.

Those with migraines often experience milder headaches of this type, but those are generally considered to be part of the spectrum of migraine, rather than actual tension headaches.  
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)

A tension headache is the most common type of headache. It feels like there is a vise squeezing your head. Caused by the contraction of muscles that cover your skull, this pain runs from one ear to the other, around the front of your head. It’s often caused by stress and lack of sleep.


Tension headache is a kind of headache which feels like a vice around the head, dull, may be located in the back of the head, around the temples or in the forehead. There are no associated nausea or vomiting and not sensitivity to lights. It may be triggered by stress and tension.
Steven A. Meyers, MD
Diagnostic Radiology
A tension headache is the most common type of headache which most people will experience at some time. Tension headaches are typically described as a generalized squeezing or tightening type of pain. Tension headaches are not usually associated with nausea, light or sound sensitivity, or other neurologic symptoms. It used to be thought that the pain of tension headache was due to abnormal muscle tension, hence the name. While some tension headaches may be associated with abnormal muscle contraction, the exact cause of this type of headache is not known.
Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine

You know how your belly feels after Thanksgiving dinner when your belt is too tight? A tension headache is the same feeling, but in your head. With nine out of ten women and seven out of ten men experiencing a tension headache sometime during their lives, it's clearly one of the most common pains around. The good news is that it's usually not there all the time, and is usually mild or moderate, not drop-to-the-ground severe, like migraine pain. It used to be thought that tension headaches came from muscle tension, but it's now believed these headaches occur when fluctuations in serotonin and endorphins activate pain pathways in the brain. Tension headaches have more triggers than a rifle range: Stress, lack of sleep, skipping meals, bad posture, clenching your teeth, medications, and being about as active as a comatose slug. Your role if you're susceptible to a lot of headaches? Isolate the triggers to see if you can identify the cause and avoid it.

You: Being Beautiful - The Owner's Manual to Inner and Outer Beauty

More About this Book

You: Being Beautiful - The Owner's Manual to Inner and Outer Beauty

Most people think that beauty revolves around such things as lipstick, sweet eyes, or skinny jeans -- all those things that we can see (and obsess over) in the mirror. But the fact is that beauty...

Continue Learning about Headache

New Device Zaps Migraine Pain
New Device Zaps Migraine Pain
What if we told you that there was a pill-free way to relieve the throbbing, pulsing and sometimes debilitating pain of a migraine? For the first time...
Read More
What are the different types of headaches?
Univ. of Nev. School of Medicine, Family MedicineUniv. of Nev. School of Medicine, Family Medicine
Headaches can be described in several different ways, but typically they are classified as cluster, ...
More Answers
8 Surprising Migraine Triggers
8 Surprising Migraine Triggers8 Surprising Migraine Triggers8 Surprising Migraine Triggers8 Surprising Migraine Triggers
See if you recognize any of these unusual triggers.
Start Slideshow
As You Look Into Future Treatment for Migraine, What Are you hoping for?
As You Look Into Future Treatment for Migraine, What Are you hoping for?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.