Headaches - tension

Highlights

What Are Tension-Type Headaches?

Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache, accounting for about half of all headaches. The pain is usually mild-to-moderate in intensity, with a steady pressing or tightening quality (like a vise being squeezed around the head). The headache is not accompanied by nausea or vomiting, and the pain is not increased by routine physical activity such as walking or climbing stairs. A tension-type headache attack can last anywhere from 30 minutes to an entire week.

Who Gets Tension-Type Headaches?

Women are more likely to get tension-type headaches than men. Nearly everyone will have at least one tension-type headache at some point in their lives and more than a third of people will experience a tension headache each year. Many people who have migraine headaches also have tension-type headaches.

What Is The Difference Between Tension-Type Headaches and Migraine Headaches?

Migraines and tension headaches have some similar characteristics, but also some important differences:

Treatment

Treatment of tension-type headache focuses on relieving pain when attacks occur, and preventing recurrence of attacks. Most tension-type headache attacks respond to simple nonprescription pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, generic), or naproxen (Aleve, generic). However, these medications, especially those that contain caffeine, should not be used more than twice a week because they can cause medication overuse (rebound) headaches.

People who have two or more tension-type headache attacks each month should talk to their health care providers about preventive therapy. This may include a tricyclic antidepressant, such as amitriptyline (Elavil, generic), combined with behavioral therapies. Behavioral treatment approaches include relaxation therapy, biofeedback, stress management, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Introduction

Most people have had headaches. There are many different kinds of headaches, and they range from being an infrequent annoyance to a persistent, severe, and disabling medical condition. Tension-type headaches are among the most common of all headaches. The pain of a tension-type headache can range from mild to severe and last anywhere from a few minutes to several days.

Brain tissue itself does not generate sensations of pain, so the brain is not what hurts when you have a headache. Rather, the pain occurs in some of the following locations:

Primary and Secondary Headaches

Primary Headaches

A headache is considered primary when it is not caused by another medical condition or disease. Most primary headaches fall into three main types: tension-type, migraine, and cluster headaches. Tension-type headache is the most common type of primary headache.

Headache

Headaches can be caused by problems in the interaction of chemicals in the brain, nerve pathways, and blood vessels.

Secondary Headaches

Secondary headaches are caused by other medical conditions, such as sinus infections, neck injuries, and strokes. Headaches due to abnormalities or infections in the nasal or sinus passages are commonly referred to as sinus headaches.

Headache

Click on the icon to see an image about headaches.

Episodic and Chronic Headaches

Tension-type headaches are classified as either episodic or chronic based on how frequently they occur:

Chronic daily headaches can begin as tension headaches, migraines, or a combination of these or other headache types. Chronic daily headaches are subdivided into 2 categories:

Causes

Researchers are not sure what causes tension-type headaches. At one time, these headaches were blamed on abnormal muscle contractions but this theory has largely been discounted. This is why this headache's name has changed from "tension" to "tension-type."

Researchers now think that tension-type headaches most likely occur due to an interaction of several factors that involve pain sensitivity and perception, as well as the role of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters). Several studies have shown abnormalities of serotonin levels in patients with tension-type headaches.

Some research has shown abnormal muscle activity in patients with tension type headache. Although muscle tightness does not necessarily cause tension-type headaches, certain triggers associated with muscle contractions or strain may contribute to this condition.

Pain Sensitivity and Perception

Research indicates that people with tension-type headache may have abnormalities in the central nervous system that increase their sensitivity to pain. Tension-type headaches are associated with, and may represent an overlap of other pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia. The central nervous system includes the nerves in the brain and spine.

Tension-type headaches may also be linked to myofascial trigger points in the neck and shoulder muscles. Myofascial pain involves the fascia (connective tissue) and muscles. Trigger points are knots in the muscle tissue that can cause tightness, weakness, and intense pain in various areas of the body. For example, a trigger point in the shoulder may result in headache.

Brain Chemicals (Neurotransmitters)

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain. Several types of neurotransmitters affect how the brain reacts to pain stimulation. In particular, serotonin (also called 5-HT) and nitric oxide are thought to be involved in these chemical changes. Release of these chemicals may activate nerve pathways in the brain, muscles, or elsewhere and increase pain.

Patients with tension-type headache are at increased risk of having depression. It isn't known if depression is a result of having headaches, or represents an underlying neurotransmitter problem that results in both depression and tension-type headache.

Triggers for Tension-Type Headache

Many different factors can trigger or aggravate tension-type headaches.

Stress.

Stress certainly plays a role in tension-type headaches. Emotional and psychological factors that contribute to stress include anxiety, depression, and anger. Lifestyle factors include fatigue, lack of sleep, dehydration, and hunger.

Sleep Problems.

Sleep disorders, such as insomnia or obstructive sleep apnea, can trigger or worsen tension-type headaches.

Poor Posture.

Working or sleeping in an awkward position can contribute to posture problems that affect muscles in the neck and shoulders.

Medication and Substance Overuse.

About a third of persistent headaches, including chronic migraine and tension-type, are medication-overuse headaches. They result from a rebound effect caused by the overuse of headache medications. Nearly any type of headache medication can produce this effect. This is especially true for brands that contain caffeine. Headaches can also occur after withdrawing from caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol.

Dental Problems.

Jaw clenching or teeth grinding, especially during sleep, are signs of temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ, also known as TMD). TMJ pain can occur in the ear, cheek, temples, neck, or shoulders. This condition often coexists with chronic tension headache. Some people with TMJ may see improvement in tension-type headaches from procedures or exercise therapies that specifically address the dental condition.

Causes of secondary headache

Click on the icon to see an image of temporomandibular joint dysfunction.

Risk Factors

Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache. Nearly everyone has at least one tension-type headache during their lifetime. Episodic tension-type headaches are far more common than chronic tension-type headaches.

Headaches in Adults

Gender.

Tension-type headaches are more common in women than men.

Age.

Tension-type headaches are most likely to occur among people in their 30s. They tend to occur less as people become older.

Headaches in Children

Tension-type headaches are rare before age 4 but become more common throughout childhood, reaching a peak at around age 13. Children with tension-type headaches often suffer from an accompanying emotional or psychological disorder.

Factors associated with childhood tension-type headaches include:

The National Headache Foundation recommends these tips for parents:

Prognosis

Both episodic and chronic tension-type headache can affect quality of life. However, tension-type headache episodes are rarely disabling, and rarely require emergency treatment. If they do, there is usually a migraine component occurring with the tension-type headache.

Nevertheless, although they are not medically dangerous, chronic tension headaches can have a negative impact on quality of life, social relations, and work productivity. Several studies have reported lower quality of life for people with any chronic daily headache compared to those with no headaches or only episodic ones. Many people with chronic tension-type headaches also suffer from anxiety and depression.

Tension-type headaches can, in most cases, be treated and prevented. Episodes of these headaches can also resolve over time. In one study, nearly half of people with frequent or chronic tension-type headache were not experiencing headaches when examined 3 years later. People who have both tension-type and migraine headaches may face steeper challenges in recovery.

Symptoms

According to the International Headache Society, tension-type headaches (episodic and chronic) tend to have the following symptoms:

Episodic tension-type headaches may also have:

Chronic tension-type headaches may also have:

Differentiating Tension-Type Headaches from Migraine Headaches

Migraines and tension-type headaches have some similar symptoms, but also some important differences:

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of tension-type headache is based on symptoms, medical history, and a physical exam. The health care provider may recommend you keep a headache diary to track the occurrence and intensity of headache attacks. For chronic, severe, or unusual headaches, the provider may conduct a neurological exam or order imaging tests.

Medical and Personal History

You should inform your provider about:

You should also report any other conditions that might be associated with headache, such as any:

The provider will also ask about your general medical and family history, particularly concerning headaches or other neurological diseases.

Headache Diary to Identify Triggers

Keeping a headache diary is a useful way to identify triggers that bring on headaches, and to help differentiate between migraine and tension-type headache. Be sure to include all events preceding an attack. Often two or more triggers interact to produce a headache.

Tracking medications is an important way of identifying medication-overuse headache. Many persistent headaches result from the rebound effect caused by the overuse of headache medications.

Try to define the intensity of the headache. There are different scoring symptoms available that help measure severity of pain. For instance, the following is a number system that can be helpful:

  1. = Mild, barely noticeable
  2. = Noticeable, but does not interfere with work/activities
  3. = Distracts from work/activities
  4. = Makes work/activities very difficult
  5. = Incapacitating

Physical Examination

The provider will examine the head and neck to check for muscle tenderness. The provider may also perform a neurologic examination, which includes a series of simple evaluations to test strength, reflexes, coordination, sensation, and mental function. The provider may also recommend an eye examination.

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests look for any serious medical condition as the cause of headache. For people who have stable headaches, they are generally not recommended except for sudden new or worsening symptoms. For imaging tests, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is preferred over computed tomography (CT) scans because MRIs do not expose people to radiation.

Imaging tests of the brain may be recommended under the following circumstances:

Headache Symptoms that Could Indicate a Serious Underlying Disorder

Most headaches, especially tension-type headaches, are not serious or life-threatening. Headaches indicating a serious underlying problem, such as cerebrovascular disorder or malignant hypertension, are uncommon. (A headache without other neurological symptoms is not a common first symptom of a brain tumor.)

People with existing chronic headaches may, however, overlook a more serious condition believing it to be one of their usual headaches. You should immediately call your provider if your headache or other accompanying symptoms changes.

Be sure to call your provider for any of the following symptoms:

Treatment

Management of tension-type headaches focuses in the short term on treating attacks, and in the long term on preventing recurrence. In general, short-term treatment of tension-type headache involves drugs (mainly pain relievers) while long-term preventive measures include both drug and non-drug approaches. With medications, relaxation training, lifestyle changes, and other therapies, most headache pain can be relieved or reduced.

Treatment for Episodic Tension-Type Headaches

Most episodic attacks of tension-type headaches get better without any treatment. Simple over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, generic) or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can treat mild symptoms. Aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, generic) are usually the first NSAID choices, followed by naproxen (Aleve, generic).

Some people may also try medications that combine a pain reliever with caffeine. However, using pain relievers, especially those that contain caffeine, more than twice per week may cause rebound headache.

Some people find massage therapy helpful for treating acute episodes of tension-type headache.

Preventive Treatment for Chronic Tension-Type Headaches

Daily preventive treatment is recommended for people who experience at least two headache attacks a month. Preventive treatments do not work as well when people overuse pain-relief medication. Your health care provider may recommend stopping and withdrawing from painkillers before beginning preventive approaches.

The goals of preventive treatment are to reduce the frequency and severity of headache attacks, and to improve the response to pain medication.

Prevention of tension-type headache includes:

Studies indicate that best results are achieved when drug treatment is combined with relaxation or stress-management training.

Withdrawing from Medications after Medication-Overuse Headaches

If your headaches develop because of medication overuse, you will need to stop taking the drug. (If caffeine is the trigger, you may only need to reduce your coffee or tea intake.)

A person usually has the option of stopping abruptly or gradually, and should expect the following course:

Medications

The standard treatments for episodic attacks of tension-type headaches are NSAIDs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen. The tricyclic antidepressant amitriptyline (Elavil, generic) is considered the most effective preventive medication for treating chronic tension-type headaches.

Due to the risks of overuse and dependence, opioids, opioid-like drugs, and sedative hypnotics are not recommended for treatment of tension-type headaches.

Pain Relievers

Pain relief medication is helpful for treating mild-to-moderate headaches. However, it cannot prevent headaches. There are many different types of pain relief medicine.

Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

NSAIDs block prostaglandins, substances that dilate blood vessels and cause inflammation and pain. NSAIDs are usually the first drugs tried for almost any kind of headache. There are dozens of NSAIDs. Common NSAIDs include:

Long-term use of high-dose NSAIDs may increase the risk for stomach bleeding and heart problems, including heart attack and stroke. Using NSAIDs more than twice a week may increase the risk for medication overuse (rebound) headache.

Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen (Tylenol, generic) is a good alternative to NSAIDs when stomach distress, ulcers, or allergic reactions prohibit their use. A high dose (1,000 mg) is recommended for treating headaches.

Acetaminophen does have some adverse effects, and the daily dose should not exceed 3 grams (3,000 mg). People who take high doses of this drug for long periods are at risk for liver damage, particularly if they drink alcohol and do not eat regularly. Acetaminophen may cause serious kidney problems in people who already have kidney disease. It also may interact with certain medications, including the blood thinner warfarin (Coumadin, generic).

Tricyclics and Other Antidepressants

Tricyclics are the type of antidepressant most often used for prevention of severe chronic tension-type headaches.

Tricyclic Antidepressants

Tricyclics are used to treat depression but they can also help relieve muscle pain and improve sleep. Amitriptyline (Elavil, generic) is the tricyclic most commonly prescribed for prevention of tension-type headache. Nortriptyline (Pamelor, generic) and Imipramine (Tofranil, generic) are other tricyclics sometimes prescribed.

A tricyclic antidepressant is usually started at a lower dose and then slowly increased. A headache diary can help you and your health care provider evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment. In general, people should remain on preventive drug treatment for at least 6 months. After that time, your provider will slowly reduce the dose while continuing to monitor the frequency of headache attacks.

Side effects are fairly common with these medications. Drowsiness is the most common side effect. Other side effects may include dry mouth, constipation, blurred vision, sexual dysfunction, weight gain, trouble urinating, heart rhythm problems, and dizziness. Blood pressure may drop suddenly when sitting up or standing.

Tricyclics can have serious, although rare, side effects, including heart rhythm problems, which can be dangerous for people with certain heart diseases. These drugs can be fatal with overdose.

Other Antidepressants

Selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain. SSRIs used for prevention of tension-type headache include fluoxetine (Prozac, generic). Other antidepressants used for tension-type headache are mirtazapine (Remeron, generic) and venlafaxine (Effexor, generic), which target both serotonin and norepinephrine.

Although these antidepressants have fewer side effects than tricyclics, they do not appear to work as well for prevention of tension-type headaches.

Other Drugs

Muscle relaxants.

Tizanidine (Zanaflex, generic) is a muscle relaxant that is sometimes used for prevention of chronic tension-type headaches. In general, there is little evidence that other muscle relaxers are effective in treating tension-type headaches.

Anticonvulsants.

Anti-seizure drugs, which are used for treating epilepsy, are sometimes used for prevention of tension-type headaches. They include topiramate (Topamax, generic) and gabapentin (Neurontin, generic).

Investigational Drugs

Botulinum Toxin.

Onabotulinumtoxin A (Botox) injections are used to relax muscles and reduce skin wrinkles. Botox injections are FDA-approved for prevention of chronic migraines in adults. However, the FDA has not approved Botox for treatment of tension-type headaches. Studies show conflicting evidence regarding the effectiveness of Botox for treating tension-type headache.

Nitric Oxide Synthase Inhibitors.

Nitric oxide synthase inhibitors block nitric oxide, which may play a role in increasing nerve activity and in vasodilation that leads to headache. Researchers are studying these type of drugs for treatment of tension-type headaches.

Lifestyle Changes

Psychological and behavioral techniques, and lifestyle changes, help reduce the intensity and frequency of tension-type headaches. These therapies can also enhance the effects of drug treatments. To date, relaxation training and biofeedback have the strongest evidence for improving tension-type headaches.

Relaxation Training and Biofeedback

Relaxation training uses breathing exercises, guided imagery, and other techniques to help relax muscles and relieve stress. Biofeedback uses a device to record a person's bodily responses (heart rate, surface skin temperature, and muscle tension). This information is then "fed back" to the person through a sound or visual image. Through this feedback, people learn to control their physical responses. In clinical studies, relaxation training and biofeedback, both alone and in combination, have led to improvements in tension-type headaches.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Stress Management

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches techniques to recognize and cope with life stressors. It can help people understand how thoughts and behavior patterns may affect their symptoms, and how to change the way the body responds to anticipated pain. CBT is often included in stress management techniques. Research indicates that CBT and stress management are most effective when combined with relaxation training or biofeedback.

Massage, Spinal Manipulation, and Physical Therapy

Massage can help relax tense muscles, and may be helpful during acute headache attacks, however there is little evidence for long-term benefits. Although some small studies have suggested that spinal manipulation by chiropractors or osteopaths may be helpful for preventing tension-type headaches, there is insufficient evidence to confirm its effectiveness for reducing pain in tension-type headaches.

Evidence is somewhat stronger on the benefits of spinal manipulation for people with headaches originating from nerve or muscular problems in the neck. Some researchers believe that tension-type headaches relieved by spinal manipulation are probably really caused by neck problems.

There has been little research evaluating the benefits of physical therapy for tension-type headache. Sessions with a physical therapist might help in teaching specific exercises for strengthening and stretching muscles or improving posture. A physical therapist may also be able to advise on ergonomic changes for the workplace environment.

Acupuncture

Several reviews of clinical trials of acupuncture suggest that it may have some benefit for tension headaches.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture, hypnosis and biofeedback are all alternative ways to control pain. Acupuncture involves the insertion of tiny sterile needles, slightly thicker than a human hair, at specific points on the body.

Diet and Exercise

Good health habits, including adequate sleep, healthy diet, and regular exercise, are helpful for reducing stress. Quitting smoking is important in reducing the risks for all types of headaches.

Home Remedies

Heat or cold packs may be helpful. Some people report more relief with cold, others with heat. Packs can either be frozen or heated.

Herbal and Other Natural Remedies

Numerous herbal remedies are promoted for tension-type headaches. It is important that anyone taking herbal or so-called natural remedies be aware of the lack of regulations governing their quality and effectiveness. Generally, manufacturers of herbal remedies and dietary supplements do not need approval from the FDA to sell their products.

Just like a drug, herbs and supplements can affect the body's chemistry, and therefore have the potential to produce side effects that may be harmful. Always check with your health care provider before using any herbal remedies or dietary supplements. Never give herbal remedies or dietary supplements to children without first consulting the pediatrician.

Essential Oils

Some people find relief using two drops of peppermint, eucalyptus, or lavender oil added to one cup of water. Soak a cloth in the solution and apply it as a compress to the head.

Magnesium

Some studies suggest that magnesium supplements can help prevent migraine headache attacks, but there is little evidence that magnesium is helpful for tension-type headaches.

Herbs

Butterbur and feverfew are two popular herbal remedies for headache relief. The American Academy of Neurology recommends butterbur as "effective" for migraine relief, and feverfew as "probably effective." It is not clear if these herbs are effective for tension-type headaches.

The following are special concerns for people taking these herbs:

Resources

References

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Review Date: 3/7/2016
Reviewed By: Joseph V. Campellone, MD, Division of Neurology, Cooper University Hospital, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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