A tension headache is pain or discomfort in your head, scalp, or neck, usually associated with muscle tightness in these areas. Tension headaches are one of the most common forms of headaches. They may occur at any age, but they are most common in adults and adolescents.
Tension headaches occur when neck and scalp muscles become tense, or contract. The muscle contractions can be a response to stress, depression, a head injury, or anxiety.
Hot or cold showers or baths may relieve a headache for some people. You may also want to rest in a quiet room with a cool cloth on your head.
Over-the-counter painkillers such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen may relieve pain if relaxation techniques do not work. If you are planning to take part in an activity that you know will trigger a headache, taking one of these painkillers beforehand may be helpful.
Follow your health care provider’s directions about how you are taking medicines. Rebound headaches -- headaches that keep coming back -- may occur from overuse of painkillers. Patients who take pain medication more than 3 days a week on a regular basis can develop rebound headaches. Aspirin and ibuprofen can irritate your stomach. Your daily dose of acetaminophen should not be over 4,000 mg.
Understanding your headache triggers can help you avoid situations that cause your headaches. A headache diary can help. When you get a headache, write down the day and time the pain began. The diary should include notes about what you ate and drank over the past 24 hours, how much you slept, and when and what was going on in your life right before the pain started. Also write down information about how long the headache lasted, and what made it stop.
You may need to make lifestyle changes if you have chronic tension headaches. This may include changing your sleep habits (usually to get more sleep) and getting more exercise. In some situations, you may need to change your job or sports activities.
Other tips to prevent tension headaches:
If your health care provider asks you to take medicines every day to prevent headaches or help with stress, take them the way they were prescribed. Make sure you report any side effects.
Call 911 if:
Also, call your doctor if:
Fumal A, Schoenen J. Tension-type headache: current research and clinical management. Lancet Neurol. 2008:7(1):70-83.
Halker RB, Hastriter EV, Dodick DW. Chronic daily headache: an evidence-based and systematic approach to a challenging problem. Neurology. 2011 Feb 15;76(7 Suppl 2):S37-43.
Updated by: Luc Jasmin, MD, PhD, Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, and Department of Anatomy at UCSF, San Francisco, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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