A tension-type headache is the most common type of headache. It is generally a mild to moderate pain that can feel like tightness or a band of pressure around the head. Most people with tension headaches feel episodic pain — on average, one or two times per month. However, on rare occasions, tension-type headaches can be chronic: about 3% of the population experience daily tension headaches.
What Causes It?
Causes of tension-type headaches can be as diverse as the individuals who experience them.
Some are caused by muscle tightness or contractions in the back of the neck or the scalp. Frequently, tension headaches can be triggered by stress surrounding school, work, or relationships, and can be aggravated by lack of sleep, reduced appetite, and “coping” mechanisms like smoking or caffeine. People with severe anxiety and depression often experience higher stress levels and can therefore be more prone to tension headaches.
Episodic tension headaches are most often caused by a single stressful event. However, people with chronic tension-type headaches caused by an ongoing stressor or trigger can experience them for as many as 60 to 90 days. Although they can occur at any age, tension headaches are most common in adults and older teens. They are also slightly more common for women and tend to run in families.
What Are the Symptoms?
The most recognizable symptom of tension-type headaches is dull, aching head pain. This often comes with a sensation of tightness or pressure in the forehead or around the sides and the back of the head as well as tenderness in the scalp, neck, or shoulder muscles.
Tension-type headaches are not usually associated with migraine-like symptoms, such as blurry vision or bright spots, nausea, or vomiting, although a tension headache will sometimes be accompanied by increased sensitivity to light or sound.
How Is It Diagnosed?
A doctor or headache specialist will ask questions to understand the pain and other symptoms and rule out other headache types, migraine, or potential underlying medical conditions. Questions might include “what does your pain feel like,” “how often do you experience these headaches?,” and “where does your head hurt during these episodes.”
How Is It Treated?
Treatments and preventive measures are available for people with episodic and chronic tension-type headaches, and over-the-counter painkillers will often provide effective relief. Techniques such as meditation and healthy sleeping patterns can also help reduce stress.
Is It Preventable?
A combination of lifestyle changes and medication can often effectively prevent or decrease the severity of tension headaches. A nutritious diet, solid exercise regimen, regular sleep schedule, or therapy sessions can help manage stressful situations and keep head pain at a minimum. Specialists can also prescribe antidepressants that help control stress levels.