A tension headache is the most common type of headache, described as a feeling of a tightness around the head. It can occur at any age, however, is most common in adults and adolescents.

Tension headache is associated with stress, depression, a head injury and anxiety, in which case the muscles in the neck and scalp begin to tense up, causing pain and discomfort in the head.

Treatment options for tension headaches are available and typically involve a balance between medications to help relieve symptoms and healthy habits to lower stress levels.  



Signs and symptoms of a tension headache include:

  • Dull, aching pain in the head
  • Feeling of tightness or pressure around the sides and back of the head
  • Tenderness on the scalp, neck and shoulder muscles

Tension headaches are divided into two main categories: episodic tension headaches and chronic tension headaches.

  • Episodic tension headaches: headaches which last from 30 minutes to a week.
  • Chronic tension headaches: headaches which last hours and may be frequent. If the headaches occur 15 or more days a month for at least three months, they are considered chronic.



The exact cause of tension headache remains unknown. Researchers believe that heightened emotions, tension, stress, depression and anxiety are all triggers which lead to muscle contractions in the face, neck and scalp, thus resulting in a tension headache.

A few examples of stressors include the following:

  • Having deadlines at work
  • Starting a new job
  • Going on vacation
  • Having a new child
  • Not having close friends
  • Having problems at work, home or school


Risk factors

Factors that increase the risk for tension headache include:

  • Being a woman (slightly more common in women than in men)
  • Being middle-aged




Tension headaches are common and while they don’t pose a threat to an individual’s overall health, they can affect job productivity and overall quality of life. The frequent pain may leave an individual unable to function and perform daily activities.



The goal of treatment for tension headache is to relieve symptoms and change triggers which may cause the tension headache to reoccur.

Medications that can help relieve a tension headache include:

  • Over the counter pain relievers
  • Narcotic pain relievers
  • Combination medications

Preventive medications that can help prevent a tension headache include:

  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Anticonvulsants and muscle relaxants

Preventive medications may require several weeks to build up into the system in order to take effect.  Meanwhile, overuse of pain relievers for headaches may interfere with the effects of the preventive drugs.



A few recommended measures to help prevent tension headaches include the following:

  • Getting enough but not too much sleep
  • Avoiding smoking
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Limiting alcohol, caffeine and sugar intake

In addition to exercising regularly, techniques which can help reduce stress levels include:

  • Biofeedback training: A technique which teaches an individual to control certain body responses such as heart rate and muscle tension, in order to help reduce pain.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: A type of talk therapy that can help an individual manage everyday stress and reduce the severity and rate of recurrence of headaches.
  • Other relaxation techniques: Any techniques which can help an individual manage stress levels and reduce tension headaches. Examples include listening to relaxation songs, yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises.