Tension Headache: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

What is tension headache?

One of the most common headaches experienced by adults is the tension headache or the stress headache. It is characterized by a dull pain in the head and behind the eyes, sometimes the back of the neck, and a feeling of pressure around the forehead. The person experiencing the headache feels like his head is being squeezed by a clamp. The pain is usually mild to moderate as opposed to the throbbing pain experienced during a migraine.

Why does tension headache occur?

There is no one cause for tension headaches. Numerous factors can come into play such as:

  • stress related to personal and professional life

  • emotional anxiety

  • mental anxiety

  • staring at a computer screen for a long time

  • excessive smoking and drinking

  • drinking too much caffeine

  • depression

  • exhaustion

  • iron deficiency

  • sinus infection

  • inadequate sleep or insomnia

  • hunger

  • skipping meals

  • fever

  • cold

  • flu

Tension headaches are generally of two types:

  • Episodic Tension Headaches - which can last from half an hour to a week. Episodic Tension Headaches occur less than 15 days in a month. If the Episodic Tension Headaches occur more frequently then they become Chronic Tension Headaches.

  • Chronic Tension Headaches - last for hours on end and occur 15 or more days in a month continuously.

If tension headaches disrupts your daily routine and you need to take medicines as frequently as twice or thrice a week you need to consult your family physician or a general physician.

If your headache suddenly becomes severe and you begin to slur while talking, or experience seizures, you need to contact a doctor without delay. Your headache in this case could be a symptom for a more serious underlying cause such as aneurysm, brain tumour, or a stroke.

What are the symptoms of tension headache? How is it diagnosed?

The symptoms of tension headache includes:

  • pain and pressure on the forehead, temples and top of the head

  • sensitivity to light and sound

  • people are able to go about their daily business despite the pain which is not incapacitating

  • irritability

  • trouble focusing

  • tenderness on scalp, shoulder, and neck muscles

Diagnosis

No specific test is required to diagnose a tension headache. The diagnosis is usually based on your history of headaches, and particular times the headaches start for example, after a stressful time at work, being hungry for a long period etc.
Your doctor may ask you to take a regular blood test to rule out any abnormality and to find out if there is any iron deficiency. Other than that no CT Scan or MRI is required.

What are the complications of tension headache?

The complications of tension headache are usually the inconvenience caused by the symptoms, such as:

  • lack of attention and focus which can affect your performance at work

  • reduced desire to perform any task

  • feeling of exhaustion

  • disruption in social life

What is the treatment for tension headache?

Exercise

Exercising will not only help build your muscles, it will also energise your mind and make it fit to cope with any stressful environment. So take sometime out to go for that brisk walk whilst observing nature, for some zumba dancing, or for aerobics, or for a swim. You’ll find your headaches melting away.

Better still, you can practice the king of all relaxation techniques, Yoga. Yoga will help release the tensions in any area of your body, and help you relax physically, as well as mentally.

Medical treatments

Usually over the counter medication is available for tension headaches, which are effective.

If you suffer from Chronic Tension headaches, your doctor may prescribe you some medications to reduce the frequency and severity of the attacks. These medicines can also include antidepressants based on your condition.

Would you like to consult a doctor for Tension Headache ?

Patient Experiences

Verified Patient
Chiropractic For Head, Neck & Back Ache
This is how to start .I had been suffering from issues like headache, neck ache , back ache, tingling in the right hemisphere of the brain ,left arm .A very sharp pain around the s... Read More
Doctor in this story :Dr. Bharat Shastri
Dr Shastri's Good Health Clinic, Mumbai
Vijay raja Basavaraju
Headaches Connected to Emotional Stress
I was suffering from headaches, body pains, laziness. I was losing my confidence. I was not concentrating and was losing interest in my job. I was given caution by my teammates an... Read More
Doctor in this story :Dr. Naresh Vadlamani
Columbus Hospital - Institute Of Psychiatry And Deaddiction, Hyderabad
Ms.Simran Sagar
Headaches Treated Through Neck Posture Correction
My headaches started one year back and I went to two neurologist before coming to Dr Tyagi . they prescribed me lot of medication which spoiled my stomach but no relief in headache... Read More
Doctor in this story :Dr. Rakesh Tyagi
Vikalp Physiotherapy Clinic, Noida

Questions answered by trusted doctors

Verified User

Experiencing Tension Headaches daily. Just when she thinks for too long, the headaches catches on. From past couple of months, a significant area of scalp has become tender on the back side of the head. Dry skin is falling out from that area of scalp. She has to apply balm to sleep comfortably daily. Please suggest.

Venkat Raghav
General Physician, Bangalore
Hello, A tension headache is generally a diffuse, mild to moderate pain in your head. Stress is the most commonly reported trigger for tension headache .One way to help reduce stress is by planning ahead and organizing your day. Another way is to allow more time to relax. Do yoga and meditation . Try to relax, don't think too much , Sleep for atleast 7-8 hours . Don't take too much of painkillers. Try breathing exercises.
Verified User

I am suffering from chronic tension headaches from last seven years . i have some thinking problem some irrelavent things comes in mind doctor, will u please help me how i control on my thought process , calms my mind, and concentrate on my studies. i recenty consult a psychiatrist , he gives me stalopalm tablet . but problem is as usual as before consulting.

Dr. Bhupinderjit Kaur Waraich
Psychiatrist, Chandigarh

Escitalopram takes 3-4 wks to start working . Plus at times one needs to increase the dose. If it doesn't work then the medicine can be changed. So keep visiting your doctor. Second, if you start going to the gym, you don't become fit immediately. It takes time. So see a counsellor for 2-3 months regularly. Thoughts are like clouds in the sky. They come and go. Meditation teaches one to bring ones attention back to ones breathing. Keep a time of the day for negative or intrusive thoughts. Then tell them you will listen to them at that time. E.g. 8 pm. At that time write down the thoughts. After a week read out aloud all the thoughts you be written. Also discuss them with a counsellor who will teach you dustraction techniques or how to write alternative thoughts.

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Did you know?

1.7– 4% adult population affected by tension headaches every 15 days

1.7– 4% of the world’s adult population is affected by tension headache 15 or more days every month.

70% people affected by episodic tension headaches

70 % of some populations report of episodic tension headaches, occurring fewer than 15 days per month.

Women experience more tension headaches

Women are more affected than men by tension headache which is the most common form of headache.

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Home remedies for Tension Headache

Unwind Yourself

Allow yourself to relax by going for a head and body massage to a spa. Your tensions will take a backseat for a while and you will find that tension headache disappearing in no time!

Go Nuts

Instead of popping in pills for that headache, make it a habit to pop in a handful of almonds instead. Almonds contain salicin which is a natural pain reliever. You can also dip a few almonds in filtered water overnight, and then consume them the next morning with half a cup of cooled milk.

Wash The Tensions Away

Take a warm shower which will wash all the tensions away along with the headache.

Be Mindful

Simple meditation and mindfulness techniques can help you calm down, de-stress, and bring your focus to the present moment. The very awareness that all is well, right now, can uplift your mood and dispel those tension headaches for good.

Apply Peppermint Oil

Applying peppermint oil on your temples, forehead and back of your jaw will provide you instant relief as the cooling sensation gradually crawls in. This is a very effective natural remedy for tension headaches.

Take Iron Supplements

Sometimes tension headaches are caused by iron deficiency. Taking iron supplements will have an immediate effect and provide you relief from those headaches.

Keep Yourself Hydrated

Drinking plenty of water and keeping yourself hydrated can make a great difference to your moods. Dehydration causes irritability and headache. Sometimes the answer is as plain as water.

Take Up A Pen

Start jotting down about the tension headache, how bad it is and where exactly is the location of the pain. Also, write down the incidents that took place just before the headache. As you keep writing this journal regularly you will begin to notice a pattern of incidents which triggers the headaches. You will gain more awareness of what disturbs and stresses you the most. ( Tip: It is not what you often think it is. )
At the same time, through writing, as you express your feelings, it can be  mentally and emotionally very therapeutic.