Tension headache

Do you often feel pain or discomfort in your head, scalp, or neck? Do your muscles get tight in these areas? If the answer is yes, you may suffer from tension headaches.

Tension headaches are one of the most common forms of headaches. You can get them at any age, but they mostly happen in adults and adolescents. Tension headaches occur when your neck and scalp muscles get tense, or contract. These muscle contractions can typically be a response to stress, depression, a head injury, or anxiety.

Often, you can get a tension headache when you hold your head in one position for a long time without moving it. Prime examples are typing at a computer, doing fine work with your hands, and using a microscope. You can even get a tension headache from sleeping in a cold room, from a cold, from drinking too much alcohol or caffeine, or from dental problems.

If you have tension headaches, you'd probably describe your pain as being Dull, pressure-like and not throbbing. You may say it feels like a tight band or vice around your head. It may be all over, not just in one point or on one side of your head or it could be worse in your scalp, temples, or the back of your head, and maybe even your shoulders.

Your doctor will ask you about what may be triggering your headaches. In fact, it's a good idea to keep a diary when you get headaches, and take it with you when you see your doctor. When you get a headache, write down the day and time the pain began. Include notes about what you ate and drank in the previous 24 hours, how much you slept and when, and what was going on in your life immediately before the pain started. Write down how long the headache lasted, and what made it stop.

For some people, taking hot or cold showers or baths may relieve a headache. You may need to make lifestyle changes if you have a lot of tension headaches. For example, you made need to change your sleep habits, usually you'll need more sleep, get more exercise, and stretch your neck and back muscles.

Your doctor may tell you to take over-the-counter painkillers, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen if relaxation techniques do not work. If you plan to do something you KNOW will trigger a headache, taking one of these painkillers beforehand may help.

Your doctor MAY prescribe narcotic pain relievers, muscle relaxants, or other medicines, but after a while you may start getting rebound headaches BECAUSE you are taking medicines.

The best thing you can do if you get a lot of tension headaches is to lower your stress level, and the tension level in your head, neck, and shoulder muscles. Take breaks at the computer, learn to relax, avoid stressful situations, and make quiet time for yourself.

Tension headache

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 10/25/2011
  • Alan Greene, MD, Author and Practicing Pediatrician; also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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