Stress, sleep disturbances, neck or jaw pain, or eye strain may trigger these headaches.
Headaches may occur several or many days each month.
Doctors base the diagnosis on symptoms and results of a physical examination and sometimes do imaging tests to rule out other disorders.
Pain relievers may help, as may relaxation and stress management.
(See also Overview of Headache Overview of Headache A headache is pain in any part of the head, including the scalp, upper neck, face, and interior of the head. Headaches are one of the most common reasons people visit a doctor. Headaches interfere... read more .)
Many people occasionally have tension-type headaches. Some people have these headaches frequently.
Causes of Tension-Type Headaches
The cause of tension-type headaches is not well-understood but may be related to a lower-than-normal threshold for pain. Stress may be involved. However, how stress is involved is not clearly understood, and it is not the only explanation for the symptoms.
Other problems may contribute to or trigger the headaches. Triggers include
A problem with the joint of the jaw (temporomandibular joint disorder Temporomandibular Disorders The temporomandibular joints are the connections between the temporal bones of the skull and the lower jawbone (mandible). There are two temporomandibular joints, one on each side of the face... read more )
Symptoms of Tension-Type Headaches
Tension-type headaches feel like tightening of a band around the head. They start at the front of the head or the area around the eyes, then spread over the whole head.
These headaches may be episodic or chronic.
Episodic headaches occur fewer than 15 days a month. The pain is usually mild to moderate. It may last 30 minutes to several days. These headaches typically start several hours after waking and worsen as the day progresses. They rarely awaken people from sleep.
Chronic headaches occur 15 or more days a month. Severity may increase as more headaches occur. The pain may vary in intensity throughout the day but is almost always present.
Tension-type headaches are rarely severe and usually do not interfere with daily activities.
Unlike migraine headaches Migraines A migraine headache is typically a pulsating or throbbing pain that ranges from moderate to severe. It can affect one or both sides of the head. It is often worsened by physical activity, light... read more , tension-type headaches are not accompanied by nausea and vomiting and are not made worse by physical activity, light, sounds, or odors.
Some mild migraines resemble tension-type headaches.
Diagnosis of Tension-Type Headaches
A doctor's evaluation
Rarely computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging to rule out other possible causes
The diagnosis of tension-type headaches is based on the person’s description of the headache and the results of a physical examination. Doctors ask the person about problems that may trigger the headaches.
No specific procedures can confirm the diagnosis. Sometimes magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the head is done to rule out other disorders that may be causing the headache, particularly if headaches have developed recently.
Treatment of Tension-Type Headaches
Behavioral and psychologic interventions
For chronic headaches, certain drugs used to treat migraines
For most mild to moderate tension-type headaches, almost any over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever Over-the-Counter Drugs (analgesic), such as aspirin Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs Pain relievers (analgesics) are the main drugs used to treat pain. Doctors choose a pain reliever based on the type and duration of pain and on the drug's likely benefits and risks. Most pain... read more , acetaminophen Acetaminophen Pain relievers (analgesics) are the main drugs used to treat pain. Doctors choose a pain reliever based on the type and duration of pain and on the drug's likely benefits and risks. Most pain... read more , or ibuprofen Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs Pain relievers (analgesics) are the main drugs used to treat pain. Doctors choose a pain reliever based on the type and duration of pain and on the drug's likely benefits and risks. Most pain... read more , can provide relief. Massaging the affected area may help relieve the pain. Most people with mild to moderate episodic headaches do not go to a health care practitioner.
If OTC analgesics are ineffective and the headaches are severe, the headache is probably not a tension-type headache. It may be a migraine Treatment A migraine headache is typically a pulsating or throbbing pain that ranges from moderate to severe. It can affect one or both sides of the head. It is often worsened by physical activity, light... read more .
For some people, caffeine, an ingredient of some headache preparations, enhances the effect of analgesics. However, overuse of analgesics or caffeine (in headache preparations or caffeinated beverages) can lead to daily headaches. Such headaches, called medication overuse headaches Medication Overuse Headache A medication overuse (rebound) headache occurs when people who take too many headache drugs have a headache for more than 15 days a month for more than 3 months. Medication overuse headache... read more , can be present when a person awakens in the morning. Headaches can also worsen or occur when the drugs being used to treat the headache are suddenly stopped. Thus, people need to work closely with their doctor to change the drugs and to use behavioral and psychologic interventions when possible.
Behavioral and psychologic interventions are often effective, especially when drugs are also used. These interventions include relaxation and stress management techniques.