Tension headaches are very common – almost everyone will have a tension headache at some time.
Seek medical attention if:
- the headache comes on suddenly, is very severe, or makes you lose consciousness
- medication doesn't help, or you're needing medication every day
- you have had a head injury
- you have blurred vision, numbness in your arms or legs, slurred speech, a fever or vomiting.
The pain is often dull and persistent. It often starts at the back of the head or temples, then spreads, becoming like a band around the head. It may feel like pressure or tightness. A tension headache may last for days.
Tension headaches are probably caused by muscle tension.
This muscle tension can be caused by:
- stress and tiredness
- depression or being upset
- overusing your neck or shoulder muscles, frowning or clenching your jaw
- working in poor conditions, or spending too much time hunched at your desk
- poor posture at home or when driving
- bright, noisy environments
- long periods of reading
- too much smoking or coffee
- overuse of painkillers, including headache tablets.
Your doctor will diagnose tension headaches by talking to you and examining you. There is no specific test to diagnose tension headaches. However your doctor may do tests to exclude other causes of headache.
You can ease tension headaches by:
- taking pain relief medicines such as paracetamol or other over-the-counter painkillers
- heat, through a hot bath or a heat pack
- massage of the head, neck and shoulders.
In the long term, you could prevent tension headaches through:
- stretching, including yoga or swimming
- regular exercise
- looking at causes of stress
- looking at how you work
- looking to ease any stressful situations, anxiety or depression.
If you are getting a lot of tension headaches, it is usually a pointer to something that is not quite right in your life. Talk to a doctor or counsellor.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about your tension headaches, check your symptoms with healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
Last reviewed: October 2017