Join for Just $16 A Year
- Discounts on travel and everyday savings
- Subscription to AARP The Magazine
- Free membership for your spouse or partner
A tension headache is the most common type of headache. This type of headache can cause mild or moderate pain in the head, neck, and behind the eyes. Some patients say that a tension headache feels like a tight band around their foreheads.
The majority of people who suffer from tension headaches have episodic headaches, which occur (on average) one or two times per month. However, tension headaches can also be chronic. Chronic headaches affect about 3 percent of the population and include headache episodes that last for more than 15 days per month. Women are twice as likely to suffer from tension headaches as men are (Cleveland Clinic).
Tension headaches are caused by muscle contractions in the head and neck. A variety of foods, activities, and stressors can cause these types of contractions. Some people develop tension headaches after staring at a computer screen for long hours or driving for long periods. Cold temperatures may also trigger a tension headache in some people.
Other factors that may trigger a tension headache include:
Symptoms of a tension headache include:
The pain is usually mild or moderate, but it can also be intense. In this case, you might confuse your tension headache with a migraine, which is a type of headache that causes throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head. However, tension headaches do not cause all the symptoms of migraines, such as nausea and vomiting. In rare cases, a tension headache can cause sensitivity to light and noise.
You can take over-the-counter pain medications, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, to get rid of a tension headache.
Other tips for easing a tension headache include:
However, these techniques may not keep tension headaches from returning.
Since tension headaches are often caused by specific triggers, identifying the factors that cause your headaches is one way to prevent future episodes.
A headache diary will help you determine the cause of your tension headaches. Keep a record of your daily meals, beverages, and activities, as well as any situations that trigger stress. For each day that you have a tension headache, make a note in your diary. After several weeks or months, you may be able to make a connection. For example, if your diary shows that headaches occurred on days when you ate a particular food, this food may be your trigger.
If tension headaches begin to affect your daily life, your doctor may run tests to rule out other problems, such as a brain tumor. Tests used to check for other conditions may include:
If your doctor determines that you have tension headaches, but painkillers are not working for you, he or she may prescribe:
Your doctor may also recommend other treatments, such as:
Tension headaches often respond to treatment and rarely cause permanent damage. However, chronic tension headaches can affect your quality of life. These headaches may make it difficult for you to participate in physical activities. You may also miss days of work or school. If it becomes a serious problem, talk to your doctor.
Also, be sure to not ignore severe symptoms. Seek medical attention immediately if you have a headache that starts suddenly or a headache accompanied by slurred speech, loss of balance, or a high fever. This can indicate a more serious problem, such as a stroke, tumor, or an aneurysm.
Written by: Valencia Higeura
Published on Aug 07, 2012
Updated on Feb 15, 2013
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
Enter your symptoms in our Symptom Checker to find out possible causes of your symptoms. Go.
Enter any list of prescription drugs and see how they interact with each other and with other substances. Go.
Enter its color and shape information, and this tool helps you identify it. Go.
Find information on drug interactions, side effects, and more. Go.
Member access to health and insurance products and services at AARPhealthcare.com.
Members can get an instant quote with AARP® Dental Insurance administered by Delta Dental Insurance Company.
Members can save on eyewear with AARP® Vision Discounts provided by EyeMed.
Caregiving can be a lonely journey, but AARP offers resources that can help.