(Muscle Contraction Headache; Tension-Type Headache)
by Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Tension headache is a spreading, steady head pain that can be mild or severe.
Tension headaches develop when muscles in the neck, face, and scalp contract.
The cause is not known. Genes are thought to play a role.
This problem often starts in people who are 25 years of age and older. It is also more common in women.
Other things that may raise the risk are:
Some tension headaches happen often. Others happen only once in a while. They do not often get in the way of daily activities. Tension headaches are:
The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. This is often enough to make the diagnosis.
The goal is to manage symptoms and lower the risk of future headaches. Choices are:
Over-the-counter pain medicine, such as ibuprofen, is often enough to ease headaches.
A caffeine supplement with a pain reliever may also help. Antidepressants may be given for those with severe headaches. It can lower the risk of future headaches.
Easing muscle tension can prevent future headaches. It can also ease headaches that have already started. Steps that may help include:
Managing stress and regular healthy movement may prevent headaches.
American Headache Society
National Headache Foundation
Canadian Headache Society
Help for Headaches
Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society (IHS). The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition. Cephalalgia. 2018 Jan;38(1):1-211.
Headache information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Headache-Information-Page. Updated December 31, 2019. Accessed April 9, 2020.
Tension-type headache. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/tension-type-headache . Updated February 8, 2017. Accessed April 9, 2020.
Tension-type headache. National Headache Foundation website. Available at: https://headaches.org/2007/10/25/tension-type-headache. Accessed April 9, 2020.
Last reviewed February 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Rimas Lukas, MD
Last Updated: 4/9/2021
EBSCO Information Services is fully accredited by URAC. URAC is an independent, nonprofit health care accrediting organization dedicated to promoting health care quality through accreditation, certification and commendation.
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
To send comments or feedback to our Editorial Team regarding the content please email us at email@example.com. Our Health Library Support team will respond to your email request within 2 business days.