Tension Headache

Feeling the tension?

A tension headache is the most common type of headache,1 so you may be interested to know what causes it and how you can manage it when you have one.

Tension headache symptoms

A tension headache will affect most of us at some time in our lives. In fact, even children get tension headaches. 2 Although these headaches are more common in women than men,2 the symptoms are much the same in everybody:2

  • pain that feels like a tight, squeezing band all over the head
  • pain that is mild to moderate, not severe
  • pain that lasts from 30 minutes to several days.2

Many people who have tension headaches experience one or two every month.3 The good news is that pain is usually the only symptom you have to worry about,2 and there are things you can do to help manage it.

Is tension the real cause?

It’s called a tension headache, but is feeling tense really the problem? Well, it seems it does play a role.

Tension headache is thought to be muscle-related,2 with a wide range of things that can trigger an attack, including tiredness, the weather, certain foods and, in women, the menstrual cycle.3,4  The most important factors, however, are tension related:

  • physical tension in the muscles of the scalp or neck, due to sitting incorrectly2 or squinting to read3
  • emotional tension, from anxiety and stress2

Managing tension headaches

A tension headache is not seen as a serious headache, but when you’re having one, you still want to get rid of the pain quickly. Over-the-counter pain relievers have been proven to work in easing tension headache pain.4,5,

Other things you can try include:

  • regular exercise – you might not realize it, but tension headaches are more common in people who don’t do a lot of exercise.2 Fitting some exercise into your day-to-day life could help.
  • relaxing and managing stress – massaging the shoulders and neck, applying a hot washcloth to the forehead or neck, yoga and even having a warm bath can help you to relax.2,3 Specific relaxation exercises may also help.
  • avoiding triggers – these can include certain foods, poor posture, stress or anxiety, eye strain and even feeling hungry.3For more information on headache triggers, read the article Top 10 Headache Triggers.

When to see a doctor

Ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice if you are worried about your tension headache, or if you have symptoms such as:

  • headaches are frequent or severe
  • a headache  that  develops quickly
  • a headache that doesn’t get better or gets worse
  • a headache that is triggered by coughing, sneezing, exercise or sexual activity
  • a headache that is different to your usual headache
  • a headache that is accompanied by other symptoms, such as dizziness, fever, numbness, persistent vomiting or diarrhea, slurred speech, a stiff neck, difficulty breathing, loss of vision, feeling weak
  • a headache that appears after you have had an accident, especially if you have hit your head.3

For most people with a tension headache it’s an annoying problem that can be easily managed. Finding ways to prevent the causes of your tension headache can help free you from pain and let you get on with living your life.


  1. Stovner LJ, et al. The global burden of headache: a documentation of headache
    prevalence and disability worldwide. Cephalagia. 2007;27:193-210. Available at: http://www.l-t-b.org/assets/67/91367926-D374-BAA8-AB51FFB2214CADE4_document/Stovner_2007.pdf
  2. Lifting The Burden: the Global Campaign to Reduce the Burden of Headache Worldwide. Information for people affected by tension-type headache. Available at: http://www.w-h-a.org/assets/6/E0ED62DA-F33B-7800-997D29F3966BCFA3_document/What_is_tension-type_headache.pdf.
  3. UK NHS Choices. Diagnosing tension-type headaches. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/headache/Pages/Introduction.aspx. Accessed July 2010.
  4. Schachtel BP, et al. Headache pain model for assessing and comparing the efficacy of over the counter analgesic agents. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 1991; 50: 322-329.
  5. Prior MJ, et al. Efficacy and safety of acetaminophen and naproxen in the treatment of tension-type headache. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Cephalalgia. 2002;22:740-748.