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Tension headache

Tension headaches are very common – almost everyone will have a tension headache at some time.

Symptoms

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.

Causes

Tension headaches are probably caused by muscle tension.

This muscle tension can be caused by:

  • stress and tiredness
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • overusing your neck or shoulder muscles
  • working in poor conditions, or spending too much time hunched at your desk
  • bright, noisy environments
  • long periods of reading
  • too much smoking or coffee
  • overuse of painkillers, including headache tablets.

Diagnosis

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.

Treatment

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:

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: July 2015

Need more information?

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Headache or cephalgia includes primary and secondary headache syndromes, such as migraines, cluster headaches and tension-type headaches.

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The available evidence suggests that a course of acupuncture consisting of at least six treatment sessions can be a valuable option for people with frequent tension-type headache.

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New daily persistent headache (NDPH) is a type of chronic daily headache, like transformed migraine, chronic tension-type headache and hemicrania continua.

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