A tension headache is pain or discomfort in your head, scalp, or neck. Tension headache is a common type of headache. It can occur at any age, but is most common in teens and adults.
A tension headache occurs 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 forehead.
If your headaches are due to stress or anxiety, you may want to learn ways to relax.
Over-the-counter pain medicine, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen, may relieve pain. If you are planning to take part in an activity that you know will trigger a headache, taking pain medicine beforehand may help.
Follow your health care provider’s instructions about how to take your medicines. Rebound headaches are headaches that keep coming back. They can occur from overuse of pain medicine. If you take pain medicine more than 3 days a week on a regular basis, you can develop rebound headaches.
Be aware that aspirin and ibuprofen can irritate your stomach. If you take acetaminophen, do not take more than a total of 3,000 mg a day to avoid liver damage.
Knowing 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 following:
Review your diary with your doctor to identify triggers or a pattern to your headaches. This can help you and your doctor create a treatment plan. Knowing your triggers can help you avoid them.
Lifestyle changes that may help include:
If you are prescribed medicine to prevent headaches or help with stress, follow instructions exactly on how to take them. Tell your doctor about any side effects.
Call 911 if:
Schedule an appointment or call your doctor if:
Freitag F. Managing and treating tension-type headache. Med Clin N Am. 2013;97:281–292.
Garza I, Swanson JW, Cheshire WP Jr, et al. Headache and other craniofacial pain. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley’s Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 69.
Updated by: Joseph V. Campellone, M.D., Department of Neurology, Cooper University Hospital, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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