Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache and the one we think of as a normal, everyday headache. Most people are likely to have experienced a tension headache at some point.
A tension headache may feel like a constant ache that affects both sides of the head. You may also feel the neck muscles tighten and a feeling of pressure behind the eyes. The headaches usually last for one to six hours, but some people may have more persistent headaches that last for several days.
Read more about the symptoms of tension-type headaches.
The exact cause of tension-type headaches is not clear but there are certain situations that have been known to trigger them, including stress, squinting, poor posture and bright sunlight. Tension-type headaches are more frequent in women than men.
Read more about the causes of tension-type headaches.
Who gets tension headaches?
Tension-type headaches affect over 40% of the UK population at any one time.
Many people have one or two tension-type headaches every month. Sometimes they develop more frequently, typically during times of stress.
Approximately 3% of people have a tension-type headache on most days. Long-term headaches are referred to by doctors as chronic.
When should I see my GP?
If you only get occasional headaches there is usually no need to see your GP. However, get medical advice if your headaches:
- are frequent or severe
- come on suddenly and are unlike anything you have had before
- are accompanied by a very stiff neck, fever, nausea, vomiting and confusion
- follow an accident, especially if it involved a blow to your head
- are accompanied by weakness, numbness, slurred speech or confusion
Your GP will ask you questions about your headaches, family history, diet and lifestyle to diagnose the headache.
How do you treat a tension-type headache?
Tension-type headaches aren't life-threatening and are usually relieved by painkillers or changes in lifestyle.
Relaxation techniques such as yoga, massage, exercise or applying a hot flannel to your forehead and neck can help with stress-related headaches.
Painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can be used to help relieve pain. Aspirin may also sometimes be recommended. Pregnant women should not take ibuprofen during the third trimester as it could risk harming the baby. Always follow the instructions on the packet.
Medication should not be taken for more than a few days at a time or it can cause withdrawal headaches.
Medication containing codeine, such as co-codamol, should be avoided unless recommended by a GP.
Read more about treating a tension-type headache.
Can they be prevented?
If you experience frequent tension-type headaches, you may wish to keep a diary to try and identify what could be triggering them. It may then be possible to alter your diet or lifestyle to help prevent them occurring as often.
Regular exercise and relaxation are also both important to reduce stress and tension that may be causing headaches.
Read more about preventing tension-type headaches.
Headaches can either be:
- primary headaches: not caused by an underlying condition. For example, they can be a symptom of stress, squinting or poor posture
- secondary headaches: caused by an underlying condition such as meningitis or a brain tumour
Tension-type headaches are a primary headache; other primary headaches are cluster headaches and migraines.