A tension headache is generally a diffuse, mild to moderate pain in your head which is often described as feeling like a tight band around your head. A tension headache  is the most common type of headache, and yet its causes aren’t well understood.

Managing a tension headache is often a balance between fostering healthy habits, finding effective nondrug treatments and using medications appropriately. Treatments for tension headaches are available.

Who Gets Tension Headaches?

About 30%-80% of the adult U.S. population suffers from occasional tension headaches; approximately 3% suffer from chronic daily tension headaches. Women are twice as likely to suffer from tension-type headaches as men.

Most people with episodic tension headaches have them no more than once or twice a month, but the headaches can occur more frequently.

Chronic tension headaches tend to be more common in females. Many people with chronic tension headaches have usually had the headaches for more than 60-90 days.

Signs and symptoms of a tension headache include:

  • Dull, aching head pain
  • Sensation of tightness or pressure across your forehead or on the sides and back of your head
  • Tenderness on your scalp, neck and shoulder muscles

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


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 are not the cause.

A heightened sensitivity and possibly a heightened sensitivity to stress may be attributed to pain in people who have tension headaches. Increased muscle tenderness, a common symptom of tension headache, may result from a sensitized pain system.

What Causes Tension Headaches?

There is no single cause for tension headaches. This type of headache is not an inherited trait that runs in families. In some people, tension headaches are caused by tightened muscles in the back of the neck and scalp. This muscle tension may be caused by:

  • Inadequate rest
  • Poor posture
  • Emotional or mental stress, including depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Hunger
  • Overexertion
  • Low iron levels


Regular exercise, techniques such as biofeedback training and relaxation therapy can help reduce stress.

  • Biofeedback training. Teaches you to control certain body responses that help reduce pain.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. This is a talk therapy which may help you learn to manage stress and may help reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches.
  • Other relaxation techniques. Other activities that help you relax, like sports, yoga, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation, may help your headaches.

Medications in conjunction with stress management techniques may be more effective than treatment alone in reducing your tension headaches.

Living a healthy lifestyle may help prevent headaches:

  • Get enough, but not too much sleep.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat regular, balanced meals.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Limit alcohol, caffeine and sugar.