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Tension headache

4-minute read

Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance or go to the hospital emergency department if you have a sudden, very severe headache and this is the first time this has happened. Or if your headache follows a head injury or it is accompanied by other symptoms that concern you.

What is a tension headache?

A tension headache is a mild to moderate pain, tightness or pressure around your forehead or the back of your head and neck. Some people say it feels like a clamp or tight band around the head.

They are very common — almost everyone will have a tension headache at some point.

When should I call an ambulance?

Most headaches are not serious. But headaches can also be a sign of a serious illness, such as a stroke or meningitis.

Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance, or go to the hospital emergency department if you have a headache and:

  • it comes on suddenly, is very severe, or has made you lose consciousness
  • you have suffered a head injury
  • you have trouble seeing, walking or speaking
  • your arms or legs feel numb
  • you have nausea or vomiting (if not clearly related to a flu or hangover)
  • you have a high fever (above 38° C)
  • you are sensitive to light and have a new rash

What are the symptoms of a tension headache?

The pain caused by a tension headache is often dull and persistent. It frequently 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 can be chronic, occurring every day for more than half the month, or episodic, where it occurs for fewer than 15 days a month.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our headache Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What triggers a tension headache?

Tension headaches, despite the name, are not always caused by stress and mental tension. There can be other triggers, including excessive muscle contraction such as frowning and jaw clenching.

Other triggers for tension headaches include:

  • stress, tiredness and anxiety
  • depression or being upset
  • poor posture at work, home or when driving
  • bright, noisy environments
  • long periods of reading
  • too much smoking or coffee
  • overuse of pain-relief medicines, including headache tablets

When should I see my doctor?

See your doctor if your headaches:

  • are more frequent or more severe than usual
  • worsen or don't improve with recommended use of over-the-counter pain-relief medicines
  • prevent you from working, sleeping or participating in normal activities

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — Our Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use our Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How are tension headaches diagnosed?

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.

How are tension headaches treated?

You can ease tension headaches by:

  • taking pain-relief medicines, such as paracetamol — but these are only for short-term use
  • applying heat, with a hot bath or a heat pack
  • massaging the head, neck and shoulders

Can tension headaches be prevented?

In the longer term, you can prevent tension headaches through:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2021


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