A tension headache can be short and episodic (lasting for about 30 minutes and occurring on 10 to 15 days every month) or chronic (a more severe version that lasts for a day or longer, and occurs more frequently). The onset of chronic tension headaches is usually preceded by the episodic type.
A tension headache isn’t as severe as a migraine headache or cluster headache, and isn’t accompanied by an aura, although you may be sensitive to light during a tension headache. As with migraine symptoms, women are more likely than men to suffer from tension headaches, and it is common for them to start during childhood or adolescence.
Tension Headache Causes
As its name suggests, a tension headache may be triggered by underlying stress that causes the muscles of the face, jaw, neck and shoulders to contract and tighten. Many people report getting a tension headache at stressful times of the day—for example, in the morning, when they may be trying to get their family ready for the day; and ahead of a hectic evening, when there are meals to be made, homework projects to help with, and children’s afterschool activities and bedtime routines with which to contend.
Other possible tension headache causes include hunger, fatigue (which may be the result of an underlying sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea), depression, arthritis in the vertebrae of the neck, and temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD), which can affect the joint of your jaw.
Headaches can bring with them various symptoms for different lengths of times. See these related University Health News articles on headache pain:
- “Dehydration Headache? Know the Causes, Signs, and Symptoms”
- “Cluster Headaches: How They Happen”
- “Exertion Headaches: How They Happen”
- “What’s the Difference Between a Sinus Headache and a Migraine Headache?”
- “Headache Behind Eye? How to Spot Potential Brain Aneurysm Symptoms”
- “Thunderclap Headache: Consider It a Medical Emergency”
Your tension headache also may be caused by not drinking enough fluids, in which case it also may be characterized as a dehydration headache. Your posture also may be a factor, particularly if you are in the habit of holding a telephone between your ear and shoulder during conversation.
Treating and Preventing Tension Headaches
Many of the same painkillers that are used to treat migraine symptoms can also be used to treat a tension headache. Also effective are alternative therapies that help to reduce stress (such as meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction), or teach you methods to help you manage your stress better so that a tension headache is less likely to result (for example, biofeedback, and cognitive behavioral therapy). Massage as well as gentle neck and shoulder stretches also may help ease a tension headache or nip it in the bud before it strengthens.
If your tension headaches are caused by temporomandibular joint disorder, you may benefit from wearing a biteguard fitted by your dentist. If sleep apnea is suspected (symptoms include snoring, and daytime sleepiness after apparently having a good night’s sleep), you may be referred to a sleep disorders clinic for an overnight sleep study.
Originally published in 2016 and regularly updated.