Tension Headache

ExitCare ImageA tension headache is a feeling of pain, pressure, or aching often felt over the front and sides of the head. The pain can be dull or can feel tight (constricting). It is the most common type of headache. Tension headaches are not normally associated with nausea or vomiting and do not get worse with physical activity. Tension headaches can last 30 minutes to several days.


The exact cause is not known, but it may be caused by chemicals and hormones in the brain that lead to pain. Tension headaches often begin after stress, anxiety, or depression. Other triggers may include:

  • Alcohol.

  • Caffeine (too much or withdrawal).

  • Respiratory infections (colds, flu, sinus infections).

  • Dental problems or teeth clenching.

  • Fatigue.

  • Holding your head and neck in one position too long while using a computer.


  • Pressure around the head.  

  • Dull, aching head pain.  

  • Pain felt over the front and sides of the head.  

  • Tenderness in the muscles of the head, neck, and shoulders.


A tension headache is often diagnosed based on:

  • Symptoms.  

  • Physical examination.  

  • A CT scan or MRI of your head. These tests may be ordered if symptoms are severe or unusual.


Medicines may be given to help relieve symptoms.


  • Only take over-the-counter or prescription medicines for pain or discomfort as directed by your caregiver.  

  • Lie down in a dark, quiet room when you have a headache.  

  • Keep a journal to find out what may be triggering your headaches. For example, write down:

  • What you eat and drink.

  • How much sleep you get.

  • Any change to your diet or medicines.

  • Try massage or other relaxation techniques.  

  • Ice packs or heat applied to the head and neck can be used. Use these 3 to 4 times per day for 15 to 20 minutes each time, or as needed.  

  • Limit stress.  

  • Sit up straight, and do not tense your muscles.  

  • Quit smoking if you smoke.

  • Limit alcohol use.

  • Decrease the amount of caffeine you drink, or stop drinking caffeine.

  • Eat and exercise regularly.

  • Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep, or as recommended by your caregiver.

  • Avoid excessive use of pain medicine as recurrent headaches can occur.   


  • You have problems with the medicines you were prescribed.

  • Your medicines do not work.

  • You have a change from the usual headache.

  • You have nausea or vomiting.


  • Your headache becomes severe.

  • You have a fever.

  • You have a stiff neck.

  • You have loss of vision.

  • You have muscular weakness or loss of muscle control.

  • You lose your balance or have trouble walking.

  • You feel faint or pass out.

  • You have severe symptoms that are different from your first symptoms.


  • Understand these instructions.

  • Will watch your condition.

  • Will get help right away if you are not doing well or get worse.