DEFINITION--Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. These
headaches can occur infrequently, such as one brought on by a stressful event, or they can
occur on a chronic basis (15 or more times a month for 6 months). Symptoms may be mild to
BODY PARTS INVOLVED--Sensory nerves in the skin, scalp, blood vessels and
muscles of the head.
SEX OR AGE MOST AFFECTED--Both sexes; all ages.
SIGNS & SYMPTOMS--
Any of the following:
- Dull, aching feeling on both sides of the head.
- Tight muscles in the neck or scalp.
- Not preceded by warnings (aura, prodrome).
- Feelings of fatigue, weakness.
- If severe, nausea, light and sound sensitivity.
- Tension, producing strain on muscles of the neck, scalp, face and jaw.
- Clenching or grinding of the teeth.
- Sleep disturbances; anxiety or depression.
- Excessive eating or drinking.
- Physically exhausting work.
- Eye strain, including sun glare.
- Use of drugs or alcohol; low blood sugar.
- Hormone changes during the menstrual cycle.
- Allergic reactions.
RISK INCREASES WITH
- Stress, either mental or physical.
- Environments that are noisy, stuffy, hot, poorly lit or have irritating odors.
- Exposure to or consumption of nitrites, sulfites, monosodium glutamate or other food
- Maintaining a sitting position for long periods (typing).
> Get enough sleep--
What To Expect
- Medical history and exam by a doctor.
- Diagnostic tests are usually not needed, but may be indicated if a serious underlying
cause is suspected.
APPROPRIATE HEALTH CARE
- Doctor's treatment, if headache persists.
- Biofeedback training relaxation therapy, hypnotherapy are sometimes useful.
POSSIBLE COMPLICATIONS--None expected for most tension headaches. Rebound
headaches can occur from long-term use of analgesics.
PROBABLE OUTCOME--Most tension can be relieved (see How to Treat).
How To Treat
- If possible, take a break.
- Massage shoulders, neck, jaw and scalp.
- Take a hot bath or long shower.
- Lie down. Place a warm or cold cloth (or ice packs), whichever feels better, over the
- For jobs requiring long hours of sitting, be sure to get up and move around at least
- Identify your headache triggers: keep a record of the time and duration of each
headache, what foods or drinks you consumed in the previous 12 hours; list any physical,
emotional or personal factors that occurred prior.
- See Resources for Additional Information.
- You may take acetaminophen or aspirin to relieve pain.
- Your doctor may prescribe: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications. Antianxiety drugs
if anxiety is a problem; antidepressants if headaches are chronic. Stronger pain
medicines; muscle relaxants.
ACTIVITY--Participate in a regular physical fitness program. Focus on exercises
that help muscles in the back, shoulders and neck.
- Most persons feel better if they don't eat, unless the headache is from low blood sugar.
- Don't drink alcohol.
Call Your Doctor If