What Are Tension Headaches?

If you suffer from headaches after a long stress-filled day, you may be suffering from tension headaches. Here’s what you should know about what these are and how to treat them.

Tension headaches are a type of headache that is relatively common in the general population. Typically, tension headaches are located:

  • Over or behind the eyes
  • At the base of the skull
  • In the cervical spine
  • In the facial muscles

Often patients suffering from tension headaches will describe their pain as intense pressure around the head or forehead that is sometimes associated with stabbing, throbbing, or grinding of the muscles of the face. This type of headache is often associated with:

  • Irritability
  • A decreased ability to concentrate
  • An increased sensitivity to sound and light

The majority of tension headache patients experience symptoms on both sides of the head.

Tension headaches are either episodic or chronic in nature, depending on their duration. Episodic tension headaches usually last from 30 minutes to several days and typically occur on less than 15 days per month. Tension headaches that are experienced more frequently are classified as chronic tension headaches. Chronic tension headaches may be a persistent source of head pain. While the pain of tension headaches may be less severe than other types of headaches, such as migraines, they can be disruptive to normal activities of daily living and can be incredibly frustrating.

Tension Headaches Causes

A variety of individual risk factors may accompany these types of headaches including:

  • Stress
  • Eyestrain
  • Dehydration
  • Hunger
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Jaw clenching or grinding

Tension headaches are not strongly associated with one specific major nerve group, as is usually seen with migraines. They are more strongly associated with muscle strain in the temples or jaw, which is transmitted to the brain by various nerves. These may include the occipital nerve, sphenopalatine ganglion, and the trigeminal nerve.

Tension Headache Treatments

If you’re suffering from tension headaches, there are treatments that can help. Always start with the least interventional form of therapy as you can. For many patients, this will include:

  • Practicing simple stress reduction techniques, such as deep breathing, yoga, or meditation
  • Ensuring that they drink enough water
  • Working to release tension in the jaw and neck
  • Getting episodic breaks from their computer screens

If your tension headaches don’t respond to these simple techniques, you can try other therapies to find relief.


Two non-pharmacological options are acupuncture and biofeedback training. These have shown to be effective for treating tension headaches.

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