What is a tension headache?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner
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-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 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.

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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.