Overview of Tension Headaches

Everything You Need to Know About This Very Common Headache

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Imagine a usual Monday morning filled with a seemingly endless "to-do" list. The last thing you need is a headache. While maybe not an incapacitating migraine, a tension headache can be burdensome in its own way. It often presents itself as a nagging "rubber-band around the head sensation" that frankly hurts and is disruptive.

A tension headache is the most common primary headache disorder, and it can occur once in ahwile or chronically (more than 15 days per month).

 Studies are variable in how much of the population is affected by them - these studies suggest anywhere from 30 to 78 percent of people. In other words, tension headaches are quite common and the vast majority of children and adults have experienced one at some point in their life. 

The Tension Headache Experience

Tension headaches are characterized by a dull tightening or pressure on both sides of the head – like a band. They typically starts at the forehead and radiates around to the back of the head and can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 7 days. Unlike a migraine, a tension headache is not associated with nausea or vomiting. Sufferers do sometimes report a loss of appetite.

Tension Headache Versus Migraine

Tension headaches are quite different from migraines, but they can co-exist and sometimes is still is tricky (even for doctors) to distinguish between the two. For example, both migraines and tension headaches can share features like sensitivity to light or sound.

That being said, one defining difference is that tension headaches do not occur with an aura like migraines can (about a third). Also, migraines tend to be one-sided and throbbing whereas tension headaches feel more muscular in nature (like your temple muscles are contracting) and less pulsating. Tension headaches also occur on both sides, whereas most migraines are localized to one side of the head - again, there can be overlap though.

Like migraines, there are a number of potential triggers for tension headaches, and these triggers are often unique for an individual, meaning what precipitates your headache may be different from your partner. That being said, common triggers include:

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • sleep deprivation
  • cold and warm temperature changes
  • fasting or not eating on time

Treatment of Tension Headaches

The good news is that tension headache usually resolve with simple over-the-counter or home remedies like sleep, food, exercise, hydration, and caffeine. Classic examples of effective over-the-counter medications for tension headaches include:

  • Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • NSAIDs like Aleve (Naproxen Sodium), Motrin/Advil (Ibuprofen), and Bayer/Bufferin/Ecotrin (Aspirin)  
  • Excedrin Tension Headache contains a combination of acetaminophen and caffeine

​​As always, it's important to confer with your doctor before taking any medication, including over-the-counter therapies, to ensure it's safe for you.

Behavioral therapies are also sometimes used alone or in combination with medication to prevent tension-type headaches, especially chronic ones.

That being said, the data on the effectiveness of these therapies is not super strong though. Examples are:

Preventing Tension Headaches

People with episodic tension headaches generally do not need to take a daily preventive medication. On the other hand, people who have chronic tension headaches often benefit from one to help reduce the number and duration of headaches. One medication that has been found to be effective in chronic tension headache prevention is Elavil (amitriptyline).

The Bottom Line

If you do suffer from tension headaches, try not to get frustrated. They are common and can usually be effectively managed. Speak with your healthcare provider so you receive a proper diagnosis and  treatment plan. Be proactive in your healthcare.


Hague B et al.. Precipitating and relieving factors of migraine versus tension type headache. BMC Neurol. 2012 Aug 25;12:82. 

Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)". Cephalalgia 2013;33(9):629-808.

Millea PJ & Brodie JJ. Tension-type headache. Am Fam Physician. 2002 Sep 1;66(5):797-804.

Spierings EL, Ranke AH, & Honkoop PC. Precipitating and aggravating factors of migraine versus tension-type headache. Headache.2001 Jun;41(6):554-8.

Verhagen AP, Damen L, Berger MY, Passchier J, & Koes BW. Behavioral treatments of chronic tension-type headache in adults: are they beneficial? CNS Neurosci Ther. 2009 Summer;15(2):183-205.

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