Tension Headache

  • Medical Author:
    Danette C. Taylor, DO, MS, FACN

    Dr. Taylor has a passion for treating patients as individuals. In practice since 1994, she has a wide range of experience in treating patients with many types of movement disorders and dementias. In addition to patient care, she is actively involved in the training of residents and medical students, and has been both primary and secondary investigator in numerous research studies through the years. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Michigan State University's College of Osteopathic Medicine (Department of Neurology and Ophthalmology). She graduated with a BS degree from Alma College, and an MS (biomechanics) from Michigan State University. She received her medical degree from Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Her internship and residency were completed at Botsford General Hospital. Additionally, she completed a fellowship in movement disorders with Dr. Peter LeWitt. She has been named a fellow of the American College of Neuropsychiatrists. She is board-certified in neurology by the American Osteopathic Board of Neurology and Psychiatry. She has authored several articles and lectured extensively; she continues to write questions for two national medical boards. Dr. Taylor is a member of the Medical and Scientific Advisory Council (MSAC) of the Alzheimer's Association of Michigan, and is a reviewer for the journal Clinical Neuropharmacology.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

View the Headache and Migraine Triggers Slideshow

What are the symptoms of tension headache?

Most tension headaches occur infrequently, and are usually short-lived (resolves within minutes to a few hours). In rare cases the headache may last for many days. A tension headaches that occur more than 15 days each month are referred to as chronic tension headache.

Tension headache pain

  • The pain of chronic tension headache tends to wax and wane in severity.
  • The pain associated with tension headache typically impacts the whole head, but may begin in the back of the head or above the eyebrows.
  • Some people experience a cap or band-like sensation which encircles their skull, while others describe their pain as a muscle tension in their neck or shoulder regions.
  • The pain is frequently described as constant and pressure-like.
  • The pain tends to come on gradually and even at maximum intensity is not incapacitating.
  • Most people who have a tension headache are able to continue their daily activities despite the pain.

Other tension headache symptoms

  • In some cases, people with tension headache report some sensitivity to light or sound.

Are tension headaches associated with symptoms of other types of headache?

Tension headaches are not associated with nausea or vomiting, and do not have symptoms like flashing lights, blind spots, or numbness or weakness of the arms or legs which precede the headache. These symptoms can help distinguish tension headaches from other types of headaches (for example, migraine headaches).

How are tension headaches diagnosed?

Tension headaches are diagnosed based on the patient's reported history of the headache and physical examination. There is no test to specifically confirm tension headache. Because the physical examination in patients with tension headache is generally normal, additional testing such as CT scan or MRI scan usually isn't required. Some basic blood work may be done to confirm that no underlying abnormality is present.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/22/2015
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