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Tension headaches

Most people experience tension headaches at some point in their life. They’re the most common type of headache, usually causing mild to moderate pain or tension around your head. Find out about the symptoms and how to treat and prevent them.

What is a tension headache?

Tension headaches (also called tension-type headaches) cause mild to moderate head pain that feels like a constant ache. They’re the most common type of headache, and most people experience them from time to time. Most people get episodic tension headaches which affect you for fewer than 15 days a month. If they happen for more than 15 days a month, they’re calle

Tension headache causes

Tension headaches are classed as ‘primary’ headaches. This means that they’re not caused by another underlying condition.

The exact cause of tension headaches isn’t known, but many factors can act as triggers for some people. These include:

  • Tiredness

  • Being stressed or anxious

  • Missing meals or being dehydrated

  • Loud noise

  • Strong smells

  • Bright sunlight and squinting

  • Lack of exercise

  • Bad posture

Who gets tension headaches?

Tension headaches are extremely common, and most people experience them at different times in their life. Anyone can get them at any ages, but they’re more likely in:

  • Teenagers

  • Adults

  • Women

Tension headache symptoms

The main symptoms of tension headaches are:

  • A dull, constant ache, often on both sides of your head

  • Pressure behind your eyes, across your forehead or on the back of your head

  • Tightness around the neck

  • Tiredness

Symptoms of tension headaches generally last between 30 minutes and several hours, although they sometimes last for several days.

Tension headaches aren’t life-threatening. They can make it difficult to concentrate but aren’t usually severe enough to stop you from working or taking part in most daily activities.

When to see a GP

It’s not usually necessary to see a GP about tension headaches, but if you’re experiencing them frequently, or the pain is getting in the way of daily life, it’s a good idea to see the doctor.

Tension headaches treatment

Tension headaches can usually be successfully treated with over-the-counter medication.

Medication

Over-the-counter painkillers, like paracetamol and ibuprofen, usually help to reduce the pain. It’s not recommended that you take these for more than two days in the average week. If you need them more regularly than this, get advice from a doctor.

Avoid taking medication that contains codeine unless the doctor has recommended it.

Medication-overuse headaches

If you take painkillers regularly over a long period (more than 10 days), your body may get used to taking the medication. When you stop taking them, it can cause a headache to develop, known as a medication-overuse headache. If you’re having headaches after extended use of painkillers, talk to the GP.

How to relieve tension headaches

Different lifestyle changes can be helpful, depending on how often and how severe your tension headaches are.

If you experience regular tension headaches, it can help to identify your triggers by keeping a headache diary. Note down what you were doing at the time, anything you were eating or drinking, and what environment you were in, as well as the symptoms you experienced.

Over time, some patterns should emerge. If you notice that a particular food or environment could be a trigger, you can adapt your lifestyle to avoid these as much as possible.

Lifestyle

There are lots of ways that you can adapt your lifestyle to help to prevent tension headaches, including:

  • Yoga for tension headaches – Yoga can help to relax the muscles in your neck, head and back and help you to maintain a good posture, which is important in the prevention of headaches

  • Massage for tension headaches – Massage is great for relieving stress and muscle tension, which can build up and contribute to tension headaches

  • Apply a flannel – Use a cold flannel on your forehead or a warm flannel on the back of your neck if it feels tense

  • Eat and drink well – Drink plenty of water, limit caffeine and alcohol, follow a healthy, balanced diet and eat regular meals

  • Exercise regularly

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

Lead GP at Livi

Last updated: